This morning, I sent players 200-191 on my countdown of the top 222 players of the coming season to subscribers’ inboxes. Here’s the entry for No. 198, Eric Hosmer. If you want access to the full list, most of which is yet to come between now and Opening Day, just click the ‘Buy Now’ button on your page.
198. Eric Hosmer, 1B, San Diego Padres: One layer of the story is pretty simple, and has been breezily, frequently told over the last eight months. Here are Hosmer’s average launch angles on batted balls for the last four seasons, starting in 2017 and coming forward: 3.9, -1.5, 2.1, 8.7. The pattern for Sweet Spot percentage follows a similar pattern. (I’ll cite Sweet Spot percentage fairly often here, despite its flaws. It’s Baseball Savant’s reported share of batted balls leaving the lumber within the highest-value band of launch angles, from about 8 to 32 degrees. I’d quibble with those endpoints, and might like to see them move according to individual characteristics of the player, but it’s a good basic stat to measure the ability to hit lofted line drives. Keep it in mind.)
Hosmer hasn’t become a Launch Angle Guy, by any means. Both the average launch angle and the Sweet Spot percentage remain below- or fringe-average. He hits the ball hard, though, so even a modest improvement in the trajectory of his contact makes a substantial difference. He made a real set of changes in his setup and swing that led to considerably more power. He now holds his hands farther from his body before starting to swing, then brings them back behind him as he loads, and the first movement of the barrel of his bat is now backward, which creates an upward path into the hitting zone. It’s a slightly longer swing than his old one, but because he has so much better timing and is on plane with the pitches he’s thrown, he made more contact last year, in addition to elevating more. Bat speed was never his problem.
He’s also taking more of what I’m thinking of as a front-loaded approach to plate appearances. A number of hitters have adopted this strategy recently, and it’s a sound one for the modern game. Hosmer is more aggressive early in the count than he used to be, but more selective than he used to be as at-bats run deep. He’s still a very aggressive hitter, and his walk rates the last two seasons have been unimpressive, but if this approach keeps yielding power and limiting his strikeouts, he doesn’t need to walk all that often to be valuable.