Back in the 70s and 80s, before the economic landscape of baseball became a proletarian struggle for survival of the “haves” versus the “have nots,” the Kansas City Royals were one of the game’s premier franchises. Between 1976 and 1985 they won six AL West championships. Since winning the World Series in ’85, however, they haven’t even made the playoffs. The absence of a hard salary cap (“luxury tax” should be reserved for Monopoly boards, not as a means of ushering wealthy clubs toward fiscal temperance) and the great disparity in television and radio revenue–the Yankees have their own freaking TV network–coupled with poor drafting and player development, has led to generational stretches of futility for some formerly proud organizations.
In 2011 the Royals showed signs of returning to relevance by virtue of an influx of young hitters produced by their farm system. First baseman Eric Hosmer is foremost among them, finishing with a slash line of 66/19/78/.293/11 in 523 at-bats. Kila Ka’aihue began the season as the starter at first base. By early May, his languid hitting confirmed the long held suspicion that the “Tryin’ Hawaiian” is a dog with fleas with no real business on a major league roster. Hosmer was called up on May 6, despite having fewer than 300 career at-bats above A-ball. He latched onto the starting job and never looked back.
He certainly looks like a star, and most experts have him in the top ten at his position. I have him ninth in my rankings, mostly because, unlike my esteemed colleague, I am not ready to start shoveling dirt over Paul Konerko and Lance Berkman juuust yet. I think those old dogs still have at least one good season in them. Rotobrian and I exchanged heated words on the subject. In retaliation he overnighted me a fart in a Ziploc; it smelled like the inside of a Ziploc. Urban myth debunked.
Last season Hosmer’s K% was 14.6. That’s good, especially for a rookie. His BB% was 6.0. That’s bad, even for a rookie. Clearly he’s up there hacking, and that’s cool. We all remember the kid on our Little League team who would always strikeout looking and then cry. Hosmer wasn’t one of them.
Hosmer swung at 36.3% of the pitches he saw last year, the 14th highest O-swing% among qualified hitters. Included among the other 13 on the list are some great hitters (Josh Hamilton, Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre), some very good hitters (Mark Trumbo, Adam Jones, Jeff Francoeur), some pretty good hitters (Yuniesky Betancourt, Erick Aybar, Delmon Young), some decent hitters (Miguel Olivo, Alex Gonzalez), and some guys who used to be great hitters (Alf Soriano, Vladimir Guerrero). The moral of the story is that success can be had employing the “swing first, ask questions later” philosophy.
The issue with Hosmer is not so much his aggressive approach, but his predilection toward low sliders and cutters. Fifty-eight percent of the time Hosmer put one of those pitches in play, the result was a ground ball. In fact, 49.7% of all balls he put in play were grounders. If he can learn to lay off the low and hard ones, his batted ball stats (namely FB% and HR/FB%) will improve. So will his overall production.
Teams like the Royals need to work harder and smarter (shmarder?) to be competitive in today’s MLB. When a group of young, controllable players emerge at once, success can be had. Look at the Rays. Like Jerry the racecar driver before him, Eric Hosmer is 22-years-old. He has a full major league season under his belt, while most players his age are still in the Midwest League riding a six-hour bus from Fort Wayne to Cedar Rapids. Ryan’s projection: 86/26/95/.304/13.