Newsletter Free Preview: What’s The Deal With Eric Hosmer’s Defense?

What’s the deal with Eric Hosmer’s defense?

You’ve probably heard it discussed already: The observers generally love Hosmer’s glovework at first, whereas the numbers think he has the range of a lost Tetris block. The former Royal has won four out of the last five American League Gold Gloves at first, nipped only by Mitch Moreland in 2016, yet here are his advanced numbers over the last four years:

Year UZR DRS BP’s FRAA
2014 -0.4 3 8.0
2015 1.0 1 3.6
2016 -8.4 -6 -2.2
2017 -0.3 -7 0.6
2014-2017 -8.1 -9 10

Okay, they’re not exactly terrible, depending on how you look at them, but they aren’t great either. And If you look at them this way, they do look pretty bad: Among the 32 first basemen with at least 1,000 innings played over the past two seasons combined, Hosmer ranks 30th by DRS and dead last by UZR.

Eric Hosmer, Pickin’ Machine?

One of the reasons Hosmer gets touted as a good defender is thanks to his reputation for vacuuming up errant throws at first, particularly ones in the dirt. We don’t generally think about this skill when we think about the fielding ability of infielders, instead turning to range as the driving factor behind fielding prowess. But part of a first baseman’s primary responsibility, of course, is to receive throws from his infield mates. Could the fielding metrics be missing the mark here?

Well, probably not. DRS actually does attempt to measure this skill with the help from a team of video scouts; at FanGraphs, you can find it labeled as “rGFP.” And over the last two seasons, Hosmer’s ranks second in all of baseball in this measure:

Player 2016-2017 rGFP
Joe Mauer 6
Eric Hosmer 5
Mitch Moreland 4
Freddie Freeman 4
Paul Goldschmidt 4

Two things jump out. While Hosmer’s been excellent in this category, the difference between the best player and the worst player, in a two-year span, is just 11 runs (stone-gloved Chris Carter ranks last at -5 runs). In other words, the spread between observed performance just isn’t that large. On the other hand, the difference between the best and worst first basemen by rPM (range) is a whopping 39 runs.

Further, since Hosmer’s scooping ability is counted in DRS, that means his range is actually worse than that stat initially indicates. By rPM, Hosmer is last in the league by five whole runs since 2016, at -18, comfortably “leading” the Phillies Tommy Joseph in the race to the bottom.

It is possible that there’s a positive side effect from great scooping that the advanced defensive metrics aren’t capturing. Infielders could feel more confident with a player like Hosmer at first, for instance, so they could be more willing to make tough throws or simply more relaxed when tossing the ball across the diamond. I wouldn’t rule out some effect, but it’s still hard to imagine it changing the overall numbers too much.

Over . . . rated?

Maybe Hosmer is just overrated as a defensive first baseman. I mean, it happens. Bill James made a career out of investigating the sometimes-faulty claims of the human eye, and there’s a chance that a lazy or incorrect narrative developed around Hosmer, perhaps thanks to his association with a winning ballclub in Kansas City.

Whenever a team wins, everyone tends to look better at everything. The Royals were losers in Hosmer’s first two seasons, but since 2013—when Hosmer won his first Gold Glove, mind you—they’ve won at least 80 games in each season, a stretch that included two AL pennants and a World Series title. At their best, the Royals succeeded with pitching and defense, and Hosmer was a fulcrum. Fielding that might have looked ordinary on a 75-win team was suddenly superb, with Hosmer, in theory, earning defensive praise for skills he didn’t have.

Call it the Derek Jeter Effect. During just about every year of Jeter’s long Yankees career, his team won (seriously, it’s ridiculous). And while Jeter did many things to help those teams win—hitting like a first baseman at a tough-to-field position, for one—he was woefully outmatched at shortstop, both visually and by the numbers. Yet Jeter still garnered a sterling reputation for his defense, winning five head-scratching Gold Gloves (and probably many more were it not for Omar Vizquel). If Jeter was good, and the Yankees were good, then it apparently followed that everything Jeter did must have been good, even the gift baskets.

There was no room for a middle ground, a place where Jeter was a great hitter, a heady overall player, and a club-footed shortstop.

An Alternative Theory

Reality tends to be more complicated than we paint it, greyer than our black and white palettes. Perhaps Hosmer isn’t the great fielder that a Royals coach might imagine nor the liability that the defensive metrics calculate. But how does that work?

Maybe it’s Hosmer’s positioning at first. I went sleuthing through the Royals corner of the internet and found an old article by Jeff Zimmerman at Royals Review. It’s from way back in 2011, after Hosmer’s rookie year, but even then, there was a debate brewing about his defensive acumen. Zimmerman retrieved some granular UZR data from its creator, Mitchell Litchtman, and noticed that Hosmer was slightly above average on ground balls hit close to the right field line but well below average as the grounders moved closer to second.

Connor Moylan, also of Royals Review, followed up on Zimmerman’s piece by looking up some video of Hosmer. After watching a bunch of Hosmer’s fieldwork, Moylan reached a similar conclusion to Zimmerman:

This first conclusion is the one I feel most strongly about and has the most video evidence. Hosmer plays too close to the line, and I think it is a team-shift instead of a personal decision.”

That was 2011, of course, and things could have changed since then. Then again, Hosmer’s defensive positioning still gets brought up in Royals land. Here’s an article by the Kansas City Star’s Jesse Newell, from September of 2016, that examines some of the same issues.

Let’s just say that he does play too close to the line in general, directed by overarching Royals strategy. This would give Hosmer a better chance at anything down the right field line, thus preventing some would-be doubles or triples. It’d also limit his range on anything to his right, in the hole between him and the second baseman, allowing more seeing-eye singles than you’d expect.

In fact, it’d limit his range, in general. Consider this very rough diagram below (park image from Clem’s Baseball):

The white square close to the line is Hosmer, and the white square further away from the line is Joe First Baseman. The circles are the estimated range for each player. Look at how Joe First Baseman covers much of Hosmer’s territory, plus a big portion of the hole between first and second, real estate Hosmer can’t get to. Hosmer, on the other hand, covers a little sliver of land between him and the bag better than Joe could, but the extra range he gains in foul territory is useless on ground balls.

It’s hardly evidence of our claim, but during Hosmer’s career, his backups have totaled 17 runs below average, by DRS, in fewer than 1,200 combined innings. Billy Butler is no Keith Hernandez, but that’s a lot of negative value for Butler & Co. to accrue in fewer than a full season’s worth of innings. This could be more of a Royals thing than a Hosmer thing.

In the end, who knows. We’ll get a closer look at Hosmer soon enough, where we can investigate his defense with the same sort of curiosity that Royals fans have. It’s possible—likely, even—that he isn’t as bad or as good as his biggest detractors or fans think, and that he’ll settle down somewhere close to an average first baseman in San Diego. Armed with detailed Statcast data, the Padres should be able to figure out if they can turn Hosmer into a better defender just by moving him a few steps on the infield dirt.

Either way, we’ll have something to talk about.

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