Eric Hosmer Achieves Lift Offon August 20, 2020 at 6:55 pm

Eric Hosmer Achieves Lift Off

At this point in his career, Eric Hosmer is a known quantity. A few good offensive seasons during his 10 years in the majors have been marred by just as many poor campaigns at the plate. Collectively, he’s been 7% better than league average as a hitter during his career. And because he’s been in the league so long, it’s pretty clear why he’s been unable to produce consistently. Among the more than 500 players who have qualified for the batting title since Hosmer debuted in 2011, his groundball rate is 20th at 54.3%.

With more than half of his batted balls getting pounded into the ground, Hosmer’s success has been dangerously tied to his BABIP. This table of batted ball stats from 2015 onwards tells most of the story:

Hosmer has never had trouble making solid contact. It’s just that more often than not, that hard contact is made on groundballs. That tendency to put the ball on the ground has only gotten worse since joining the Padres in 2018, and it’s come with an elevated strikeout rate as well. Since signing his eight-year deal, he’s been 7% below league average at the plate and has accumulated -0.5 WAR over two seasons. His contract and lack of performance has become a big problem for the Padres.

Things might be looking up for Hosmer in 2020, however. He started off the year with five hits in three games including two doubles and a home run. A stomach issue sent him to the Injured List for 10 days and he struggled in his first few games back, his body likely still recovering from losing some weight while he was sidelined. But from August 13-17, he put together a five-game hitting streak that included three home runs. Because of his missed time earlier in the season, he’s only accumulated 56 plate appearances, but there have already been some significant changes to his approach that deserve investigation.

Here’s the same table as above, this time with 2020 included.

Hosmer’s batted ball profile looks nearly unrecognizable from his previous career norms. His groundball rate has dropped to a career low, and his fly ball rate is among the league leaders at 46.5%. This spring, Hosmer made some comments recognizing the deficiencies of his approach and acknowledged the changes he needed to make:

“I’ve got to get the ball in the air a little more. I’ve got to drive the ball a little more. I hit the ball really hard. It just goes on the ground.”

This isn’t the first time Hosmer has expressed a desire to hit the ball in the air more often. He made similar comments back in 2018. But this is the first time that sentiment has led to an actual change in approach.

When a batter makes significant changes to his batted ball profile, the simple assumption is that he’s made a swing change, as so many other batters have recently. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Hosmer. Here’s an example swing from 2019:

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And here’s a swing from 2020:

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Hosmer still has the long, loopy swing that he’s always had. The leg kick is still present as a timing mechanism. If he made any mechanical changes to his swing, they’re likely small tweaks rather than the big, sweeping changes we’ve seen from batters like Justin Turner. In The Athletic interview linked above, Hosmer mentions maintaining balance on his back leg as a way to prevent him from swinging down on the ball. That minor mechanical adjustment is certainly present in his 2020 swing shown above but it probably isn’t the main source of his new batted ball profile; instead, a change to his swing profile is likely what’s driving the change in batted ball outcomes. Here’s Hosmer’s swing rate grouped by pitch type during his career.

He’s simply stopped swinging at breaking balls and offspeed pitches and has focused his approach on attacking fastballs. Over his career, his groundball rate against breaking balls is 57.7% and it’s even higher against offspeed pitches (60.6%). By reducing the number of swings on pitches that produce his highest rates of groundball contact, he’s bound to reduce his overall groundball rate. His historic groundball rate against fastballs has been high as well (53.2%), but this year he’s elevating the hard stuff he sees. His average launch angle against fastballs has increased by 10 degrees this year and his average launch angle against breaking balls has increased by 20 degrees!

There have been periods earlier in his career where his rolling average launch angle has been this high, but not since joining the Padres. (It should be noted that his average launch angle was higher (17.2 degress) through August 16 but he’s hit a bunch of groundballs in the days since — such is the nature of these early season stats.)

Hosmer hasn’t just increased his launch angle, he’s also changed his batted ball distribution. He’s had a fairly even distribution of batted balls throughout his career, with a 34.2% pull rate balanced by hitting to the opposite field 28.7% of the time. This year, his pull rate is up to 44.2%, easily a career high. And because he’s elevating the ball more often while still maintaining his hard hit rate, his barrel rate is also at a career high 12.2%.

Changing his swing profile has also helped him reduce his strikeout rate to where it was in Kansas City. His chase rate has dropped by four points and his contact rate has increased by more than 12 points, up to a career high 85.7%. Hosmer has a new plan at the plate. When he’s ahead in the count, he’s swinging at non-fastballs just 28.6% of the time, nearly 25 points lower than last year. He’s focused on attacking fastballs and pitches he can handle. And when he makes contact, he’s pulling the ball more often and elevating.

This new approach at the plate has resulted in a reinvention for Eric Hosmer. Nearly every single change he’s made has helped him produce better results at the plate. We’re getting close to the point where these underlying statistics become statistically reliable. It certainly seems like Hosmer has finally figured out the adjustments he needed to make to regain his productivity at the plate.

Thanks are due to Eric Longenhagen for sharing his notes on Hosmer’s adjustments.

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