Written by: Justin Choi (@justinochoi)
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This early into the season, it’d be foolish to draw any conclusions from the performances of players and teams so far. Not enough time has passed for things to stabilize; at this point in the season, leaderboards and standings change within a mere two or three games or even plate appearances. For example, as of writing this article, Phil Gosselin has the third-best fWAR of all hitters in baseball, and Literally The Miami Marlins are a division leader.
That being said, Eric Hosmer is hitting baseballs in a way that deserves your attention. Regardless of a minuscule sample size, the veteran first baseman is accomplishing a feat that’s eluded him throughout his career: elevating the ball.
Okay, so a big league hitter recorded a single. Why is this such a big deal? Take a look at this radial chart showing the launch angle distribution of Hosmer’s batted balls last year:
The single shown above flew at an angle of 25.3 degrees. In 2019, just 17.6% of ALL balls Hosmer put into play had a launch angle of 25 degrees or greater. What Hosmer did a few days ago is pretty rare, sadly. To wit: amongst hitters with at least 300 batted ball events that year (n=173), Hosmer ranks 170th by percent of balls hit at that launch angle range.
But DJ LeMahieu, the breakout hitter of 2019, elevated his balls above 25 degrees 16.6% of the time. So it might not make sense to single out Hosmer, but bear with me. Let’s keep the sample of 173 hitters but instead change the criterion to balls batted 0 degrees or less. With a whopping 43.2% of his balls hitting the ground, Hosmer is 2nd on that list, once again by pitch percentage.
Simply put, Eric Hosmer’s batted ball profile is uniquely atrocious. Nobody hits like Hosmer, thus nobody elicits frustration like Hosmer – because yes, he’s terrible by major league standards, but also because there was potential for him to improve. Exit velocity has never been a problem for Hosmer. In fact, his average exit velocity of 90.8 mph last year put him in the 79th percentile of all hitters, or in baseball twitter-speak, equaled that of Mike Trout.
Lifting the ball above ground level would have guaranteed Hosmer success, and in 2020, that’s exactly what he’s been doing. On Friday, all four of his batted balls – two doubles, one single, and a fly out – were all hit at launch angles over 20 degrees, and 3 of them over 25. For someone like Eric Hosmer, such results are a miracle, an analyst’s dream-come-true.
The issue, of course, is if Hosmer can continue to find the sweet spot. It could be that he’s simply on a hot streak and is due for a regression to his former self. After all, according to Max Freeze of Freeze Stats, launch angle for hitters stabilizes after 50 BIP (roughly 18 games), so it’s a bit too early to board the Hosmer hype train.
However, if Hosmer changed his swing, that’s potential evidence that the improved Hosmer is here to stay. So I did some research. First, here’s a screenshot of him attacking a Madison Bumgarner fastball located middle-away in 2019:
With just one year of Little League experience, I’m no expert on hitting, but Hosmer looks awkward here. His body’s contorted in a way that’s meant to maximize contact, not power to elevate the ball. His suboptimal attack path means that even if he makes contact, the ball is likely to mis-hit the bat, leading to a groundout. Spoiler: that’s exactly what happened.
Let’s fast forward to 2020. Same pitcher, even the same pitch location. The pitch type is different, but unfortunately I couldn’t match that requirement (small samples, after all). This is what Hosmer did:
That looks much better. Might be because he’s hitting a slower pitch, but the attack path is much better. Hosmer’s front hip is more engaged, too; it seems he’s using more of his lower body to create momentum and drive the ball forward, whereas last year most of his power came from the torso. Everything’s cleaner, more efficient.
The result? A clutch two-run double that contributed greatly to the Padres’ victory over the Giants. For your enjoyment, here’s are the full clips of 2019 Hosmer and 2020 Hosmer:
And from last week…..
But after all that’s been said so far, is this a change for Eric Hosmer? The answer is actually no. When Hosmer made good contact regardless of what year it was, his swing contained all the positive qualities I mentioned above. Consider a home run that he hit last year:
That swing is nearly identical to the one he’s shown in 2020. So why did I compare the two years? As I later found out, the difference is not in the swing; rather, it’s a matter of which pitches Hosmer was able to elevate. His ISO/BIP, which is a shorthand way of evaluating a hitter’s power, is higher in select areas of the strike zone. From last season:
The heat-map shows that the source of Hosmer’s extra-base hits were pitches high or low in the strike zone – not pitches in the heart of the zone, which is puzzling. Anywhere else is grim; off pitches in Baseball Savant’s #4 ‘Gameday Zone’ (where the middle-away pitch was), Hosmer had an ISO of .148 and an average launch angle of 0.7 degrees. That easily puts him in the bottom percentile of all hitters.
But in 2020? All of his hits so far have been off pitches that Hosmer usually struggles with. Pitchers know his weakness, but they’ve been unable to capitalize on this knowledge. Look at the location of this Kevin Ginkel pitch Hosmer smacked into left field for a double:
That’s a good pitch – on the edge, hoping for a weak, off-balance swing – but Hosmer didn’t comply. Perhaps that’s because he’s not the hitter we used to know. We could be in the middle of a late-career resurgence from Hosmer, one that may solace the countless Padres fans discontent with his bloated contract. On the other hand, the small sample size may be leading us astray.
The key here is consistency. What’s important to look out for is if Hosmer continues to punish balls that are outside his comfort zone, or if the launch angles remains higher. If he’s truly endorsed the fly ball revolution (meaning his goal and mindset at the plate has changed), it’s very possible that the Padres will add a win or two en route to a playoff berth. Now they’ll have the intangible and tangible skills of their first baseman!
All statistics from Baseball Savant and Fangraphs
Follow P365 MLB and KBO Analyst Justin Choi on Twitter! @justinochoi
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365