Since the position battles in spring training don’t appear to be all that exciting, I’m going through the Royals’ lineup to get an idea of how opposing pitchers will look to attack each player this season. I use data from Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant, and Fangraphs to figure out what pitches each hitter loves to see, and what pitches give them nightmares. So far, I’ve gone over the profiles for both Norichika Aoki, and Omar Infante. Now it’s time to move into the heart of the order with a guy many are expecting to have a big season for the Royals in 2014, Eric Hosmer.
Hosmer’s 2013 was a stark contrast to his 2012 campaign. In the year before last, it seemed like Hosmer could do nothing right at the plate as he limped to a .232/.304/.359 batting line. Of course, you already know this. What you may not know is that Hosmer wasn’t a complete disaster against every pitch he faced that year. Sure, he was downright awful against breaking balls (.195 AVG, .250 SLG), and he wasn’t much better against offspeed pitches (.224 AVG, .329 SLG). But against hard stuff, he hit .275 with a .447 slugging percentage. In other words, Hosmer handled himself against fastballs fairly well, even in his disappointing season.
The reason I find that interesting comes from the fact that Hosmer’s improvement in 2013 didn’t come from a drastic spike in performance against fastballs. He did well against hard stuff last year (.342 AVG, .499 SLG), but the real reason for his turnaround was his increased production against the other types of pitches. Against breaking balls in 2013, Hosmer still wasn’t all that good (.234 AVG, .328 SLG), but improvement is improvement. He did reach base safely 15 times after putting a curveball in play (hits and reaching on error), which led the majors last season. Oddly enough, Hosmer was actually worse against breaking balls after Pedro Grifol and George Brett came aboard the coaching staff than he was early in the year (.250 AVG, .417 SLG before; .228 AVG, .293 SLG after). I’m not sure if that’s particularly significant for the future, but it is fascinating to me.
The biggest step forward for Hosmer came against offspeed pitches. Last year, he hit .298 with a .500 slugging percentage against those pitches. If you’re keeping track, that means Hosmer hit for more power against offspeed stuff (.202 ISO) than against fastballs (.157 ISO). He still swung and missed a bit too much against changeups (28.4% whiffs per swing), but when he made contact, he had success.
Another thing I found strange about the difference between Hosmer’s 2012 and 2013 seasons is in how pitchers – lefties, in particular – attacked him. Opposing pitchers weren’t really using different parts of the zone, as they typically kept the ball down and away as often as possible. However, when left-handed pitchers were ahead of Hosmer in 2012, they threw breaking balls 50% of the time. Last season, they threw him breaking balls just 38% of the time in those situations. I will admit they were less cautious with him before the hitting coach change (31% breaking balls) than after (40% breaking balls), but I still find it surprising that opposing lefties would give a fastball hitter so many fastballs to hit in hitters’ counts. That may help explain why Hosmer had no platoon split in 2013, as he had a 119 wRC+ against both lefties and righties. Right-handed pitchers didn’t really change their approach against him between 2012 and 2013, and if Hosmer continues to hit changeups as well as he did last year, it won’t matter what they throw him, since he’s probably going to hit it hard somewhere.
For Hosmer to climb to an even higher level of offensive performance in 2014, he’ll need to learn to hit breaking balls better than he has. I would expect to see him get a heavy diet of them this season, even with Billy Butler hitting behind him. Teams will learn that Hosmer can crush fastballs, so they’ll likely look to mix it up a bit more in order to keep him guessing. The key for Hosmer will be to be more selective at the plate, and as Butler said in this article from Jeffrey Flanagan, “You can take a strike if it’s not your pitch. That’s something you learn as you get older.” If Hosmer sees something in the zone that he can’t do much with, he’ll just need to let it go. He has good enough contact skills and strong enough hands that he can still do damage if he’s down in the count. If he can continue to make adjustments and refine his approach against breaking balls, Hosmer should take that next step and become the premier player the Royals and their fans have been expecting.