Free-Agent Eric Hosmer, Potential Cardinal: Perception vs. Reality

Let’s take a break from Giancarlo Stanton Mania to inspect alternative BIG BAT candidates for your St. Louis Cardinals.

During the GM meetings in Orlando this week, it was reported or revealed or rumor-mongered or something … that the Cardinals have an interest in Eric Hosmer, the erstwhile Kansas City Royals’ first baseman.

Hosmer is being repped by agent extraordinaire Scott Boras.

(Translation: guaranteed overpay.)

OK, what kind of interest do the Cardinals have in Hosmer?

Are we talking, “Hey, Eric, really good to see you, hope you have a nice winter. It’ll be interesting to see where you sign. Good luck.”

Are we talking, “Hey, Scott, we’d like to talk to you about your client, Eric Hosmer. We’re definitely interested in signing him.”

Or is it a nutball level of interest as in, “Name your price, Boras, let’s get this over with. Tell us what you want in a deal for Hosmer and consider it done.”

Hosmer will get paid.

There’s a lot of fussing over Hosmer right now, which means that a stir has been created, and that stir will continue to be stirred by the greatest stirrer of them all…

Scott Boras.

First, Boras already is immersed in the media-manipulation phase of the aggressive Hosmer marketing project: “Our comprehensive study shows, conclusively, that Eric Hosmer is the best lefthanded-hitting  first baseman in the majors since Lou Gehrig in 1927, and you all need to write that.” 

(Scribes nod in agreement.)

And never forget that Boras seems to having quite a MLB general managers under his spell. For example, I am pretty sure that Boras has Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo set on his voice-command dialing, which makes it quick and simple to reach Rizzo and have him immediately agree to a $175 million deal for any client that Boras is shopping.

You will be shocked — SHOCKED — to know Boras not only wants a team to gift Hosmer with a $200 million contract. But these teams must also understand that, at a cost of $200 million, Hosmer is a bargain, a value buy, a virtual steal — and his $200 million signing may, in fact, qualify as a felony robbery.

So Boras has put his price of $200 million on the table.

Dave Cameron of Fan Graphs envisions a six-year, $126 million deal for Hosmer.

Baseball insider Jon Heyman (FanRag, MLB Network) sets the Hosmer sale at seven years, $160 million. The astute gang at Major League Baseball Trade Rumors believe a Hosmer deal will come in around six years and $132 million.

And then there’s Keith Law of ESPN, who recently wrote that he could  “see giving Hosmer four years and $60 million to $70 million given his youth and the possibility that he’s really a four-win (WAR) player going forward, but paying even that much to a player who was replacement level as recently as 2016 should make any GM nervous.”

How rude of Keith Law, to introduce some actual  sanity  into this discussion.

Hosmer is an inkblot talent … when folks look at him, they’ll see whatever the hell they want to see based on bias or just personal preference.

Hosmer fanatics probably think he’s a poor man’s Joey Votto.

Hosmer skeptics put him slightly above, say, Matt Adams.

Travis Green, the executive producer of The Bernie Show became so restless over the Cardinals’ failure to acquire the BIG BAT during the first 3 minutes and 8 seconds of the GM meetings, he’s now turning his attention to Hosmer … and Travis has convinced himself that Hosmer is the contemporary Will Clark, or Todd Helton, or Don Mattingly (the player, not the manager.) I think I ruined my producer’s day when I gave him a dose of my finest deprogramming truth stats on Hosmer. Sorry, mang.

You want comparisons?

Hosmer is probably a lesser — but younger — version of another free-agent first baseman, Carlos Santana. (Formerly of the Cleveland Indians.)  The Hosmer-Santana career batting numbers are similar. Hosmer has a .359 career OBP; Santana is .366. And their career slugging percentages are virtually the same (.449 for Hosmer, two points higher than Santana.) In park-adjusted runs created, Santana is 23 percent above league average for his career; Hosmer is 11% above league average.

Hosmer and Santana have played roughly the same amount of time in the big leagues. Santana is by far the more consistent of the two, never going below 2.1 WAR (wins above replacement) in his seven seasons. He’s average 3.02 WAR per year.  Hosmer has an erratic pattern; he’s been below replacement level (2012), at the replacement level twice (2014, 2016) and has averaged only 1.42 WAR in his seven seasons.

If we are talking pure power here,  Hosmer has a career ISO of .155, which is slightly above the MLB average for Isolated Power since 2011. Santana’s career ISO is .196. Santana gets the edge in power.

Hosmer is a very fine OBP guy with a decent walk rate of 8.2 percent. But Santana has exceptional plate discipline, with a career 15.2 percent walk rate.

Hosmer is a much better base runner than Santana … but the metrics show that Hosmer is average on the bases.

Defensively, Santana is vastly superior to the overrated Hosmer. I don’t understand why Hosmer four gold glove awards; nothing in the defensive metrics at Bill James Online or Fan Graphs suggests that Hosmer is anything but a below-average fielder and a defensive liability. According to the Defensive Runs Saved totals at Bill James Online, Hosmer is minus 21 below average at first base during his career. In the last two seasons (respectively), Hosmer ranked 33rd and 31st among MLB first baseman. He was minus 13 below in DRS over the last two seasons. This is what passes for gold nowadays? As the kids would type: LMAO.

Santana broke in as a catcher but hasn’t caught since 2014. But the more Santana plays first base, the more he improves defensively. In 2017, Santana ranked No. 5 among big-league first basemen with 10 Defensive Runs Saved.

Hosmer recently turned 28.  Santana will be 32 in April.  Youth is on Hosmer’s side.

Santana is a switch hitter who handles the bat well from either side of the plate. He has a career .815 OPS against lefties and an .805 OPS against righthanders.

Hosmer, who bats left, is good against RHP (.825 career OPS) but not nearly as effective against lefties (.693 OPS.)

I didn’t mean to turn this into a Hosmer vs. Santana debate.

I introduced Santana into a Hosmer discussion for several reasons:

(1) this just shows how perceptions matter. This just shows how people really do see what they want to see. If you asked media types and fans to think about Hosmer and Santana and then name the better player, I truly believe most would say Hosmer. And other than base running, it isn’t true.

(2) Be careful of getting blinded by the shiny trophies. Hosmer’s defense is heralded. His defense has repeatedly been rewarded with trophies  — I don’t know why —  but Hosmer’s defense stinks. So why does Hosmer win gold gloves? Maybe because he looks the part.

(3) And while it’s important to note that Hosmer is 3+ years younger than Santana, which makes him Hosmer more appealing and a safer risk in some respects, this also means that…

(4) A smart team can probably sign Santana for a contract for three or four years, as opposed to succumbing to the Boras demand of six or seven years. And Santana may also come in at a lower annual average salary than Hosmer.

Hosmer is fine. He’s been praised for his leadership. He plays the game with intensity and passion.

That said, do you see a $200 million player in Eric Hosmer?

What about $150 million, or $100 million?

I don’t see it. And that means absolutely nothing.

Hosmer will get his $100 million or $150 million or $175 million. Plenty of GMs will take the bait on the Boras dangle. The GMs will see the improved batting performance in Hosmer’s walk-year season. They will convince themselves that Hosmer will continue to match his 2017 production that included a .318 average, .385 OBP,  .498 slug, 25 homers, 94 RBIs. They’ll be dazzled by the gold gloves that should be on another first baseman’s mantle.

Hosmer will get paid — paid big — because he is just one of those fortunate fellows. Most people just assume that he’s an elite player, or at least a very good player, even if the facts don’t match the image or impression.

Hey, if the Cardinals want to overpay for Hosmer, I don’t care. It isn’t my money. And I like watching Hosmer play ball.

If the Cardinals or another team want to spend heavily for a dude who has averaged 22.4 homers over the past three seasons, and who doesn’t field first base as well as Matt Carpenter, and who hits a ton of of ground balls … then step up and pay the man!

Here’s what I think is funny …

Let’s just say that the Cardinals sign Hosmer to a deal that exceeds $100 million. And let’s just say that Hosmer starts the season by hitting many ground-ball outs. Imagine the level of distress over that. Imagine the shrieking, the noise. Imagine the text messages and the emails and the hollering on sports-squawk radio about Hosmer being overrated, and he doesn’t hit all that many homers, and he hits too many damned ground balls.

Well … Hosmer has a 54.2 percent ground-ball rate for his career. Over the last two seasons combined, Hosmer’s ground-ball rate of 57.6 percent is the seventh-highest in the majors. In these modern times, when just about every MLB hitter in existence has the launch codes for adjusting their swings and rocketing an increase in their home-run count, Hosmer will frequently hit the ball on the ground, just like an olden days batter. And we would growl, and we would wonder what was wrong with this guy, and we would accuse John Mabry of ruining him by turning Hosmer into a useless ground-ball hitter.

The thing is, those high ground-ball percentages have been under Hosmer’s name on the stats sites, just a few clicks away, for many years. The ground-ball rates have been there all along, and they are easy to find, easy to see.

And we know that this doesn’t really matter …. not when so many people see only what they want to see in Hosmer … even if they are seeing things that aren’t there … and even if they cover their eyes or remove their glasses to avoid seeing things that ARE there.

Hosmer is an interesting case. Probably the best test case of reality vs. perception in this free-agent class.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie