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Eric Hosmer: BABIP Stooge

Scroll a little more than halfway down Zach Sanders’ End of Season First Base Rankings, and there at number 31 you’ll find Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer with a measly $1 value attached. If you stood by Hosmer this past season, you probably think that Zach was a little too generous with that ranking and perhaps that dollar value is a bit much. After all, as far as disastrous seasons go for over-hyped players, this one may not take the cake, but it definitely ranks up there.

When Hosmer first received his call-up to the majors early in the 2011 season, expectations were high, but not beyond the scope of reality. He had decent bat speed, excellent plate coverage and great bat control. He was lauded for his plate discipline, his on-base skills, and had shown strong power potential that was expected to increase as he filled out and made adjustments to his swing.  By the end of his rookie season, he had delivered on nearly all fronts, batting .293 with 19 home runs, 78 RBI and 11 stolen bases. His strikeout rate sat at just 14.6-percent, a good four percent better than league average. While his walk rate was just six percent, he still managed to finish the season with a .334 on-base percentage thanks to above-average contact rates and a decent BABIP.

Coming into the 2012 season, there were plenty of fantasy owners champing at the bit to get a hold of Hosmer. Between his youth and upside, many were content to bypass the elite first basemen and wait until the fifth or sixth round to land him, expecting a strong output from a deep position. However, not everyone was in agreement and our own Dave Golebiewski shared some of his concerns with regard to Hosmers’ plate discipline and penchant for hacking. Well, we all know which side won that argument.

But actually, it wasn’t hacking that did Hosmer in this past season. If you look at his plate discipline numbers, you’ll see a decrease in overall swing percentage as well as on pitches outside the zone. His swing rates were still higher than league average, but he was actually being more selective at the plate this year than last. You never like to blame a guy’s disastrous season on bad luck, but based on the improved plate discipline, the increased walk rate and the comparable strikeout rate (yes, it’s a bit higher, but that’s to be expected of a guy who has spent nearly six months pressing at the plate), you can’t help but turn to his obscenely low .255 BABIP.

Back in late May, after two dismal months, Jeff Zimmerman did an in-depth look at Hosmer’s low BABIP and broke it down with respect to his batted ball data. Four months later, we’re still reaching the same conclusions — bad luck, pressing at the plate and the defensive shifts he’s faced most of the year have all contributed to his BABIP problems and regardless of an improved walk rate or better plate discipline, it just wasn’t enough to overcome such a weak BABIP. To make matters worse, Hosmer has been known (at least throughout his time in the minors) to get pull-happy when he’s slumping and ends up rolling over on balls on the outside corner. His BABIP on pulled balls has been his worst according to Zimmerman’s findings.

As for the power decline — going from an ISO of .172 to .127 — it would seem to be a combination of the poor contact he was making on pull-hits and the tear in his rotator cuff that caused the Royals to eventually shut him down towards the end of September. How much that shoulder was bothering him throughout the year, only Hosmer knows, but between the slump and the talk of a trip back to Triple-A Omaha, it would seem likely that he wasn’t as honest as he should/could have been.

Hosmer’s offseason should be monitored closely as you prepare for next year. In this scribe’s opinion, he can overcome the mental aspect of a terrible year and will be able to make the necessary adjustments to deal with the defensive shifts and working out of a slump without getting himself all twisted up in his head. But if the shoulder continues to be a problem, then the hopes of him hitting for any legitimate power are dimmed a bit. If rest and rehab are all it will take, then that’s promising, but shoulder surgery to repair a tear in the rotator cuff is a different story. Best case scenario has him batting .300 with 20-25 home runs. Worst case has him floundering in Omaha while Billy Butler and a rag-tag cast of characters handle first base duties in 2013.