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Eric Hosmer's clutchiness is not because of the reasons you think it is

Not focusing on dingers? I wouldn't be so sure.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In Monday's Royals Rumblings, Max linked to an article by Anthony Castrovince in which Eric Hosmer was quoted as saying that home runs are not as important as RBIs. The full quote is in the Rumblings or in the article itself, so I won't re-quote it here. Go read the quote for its full details. There's a fair amount to unpack about this statement.

The discussion came up because many people, probably many of us here included, feel like Hosmer is yet to reach his potential. He seems like someone who should hit more than 20 dingers per year; yet, he has not hit 20 yet in a single season. The quote may reveal some of his process why - he cares more about scoring the run than swinging for the fences. Homers are an incredibly efficient way to score runs, as fellow Kevin Shaun Newkirk repeatedly pointed out in the comments of that Rumblings. A home run will 100% of the time score at least one run. It would make sense to go after dingers to score runs, but Hosmer states that is not the case despite their efficiency.

However, and I'm jumping into speculation land here, let's try to get into Hosmer's brain. There was some discussion about parks in the AL Central vs. parks in the NL Central - Hosmer's thinking about park effects on home runs. The NL Central, with the Reds and the Brewers, has some dinger-friendly parks (it has a dinger-unfriendly park in PNC Park too). I think it is reasonable to assume that Hosmer has tailored his approach for what he believes is the best way to score runs at Kauffman. That approach does not necessarily include homers (or fly balls). It's also possible that Hosmer believes a dinger approach would hurt his performance - maybe he would be hunting fastball too much and get fooled, or he would roll over grounders to the first base side even more than he already does.

The very next paragraph after that quote, Castrovince relayed information about Hosmer's performance with runners in scoring position, noting that Hosmer's increased OPS with runners in scoring position signals a "knack for coming through in the clutch."

The implication here is that Hosmer's tailored approach, which includes not focusing on fly balls and homers, somehow works to his advantage in the clutch. Hosmer, trying to work the gaps to bring in runs, is in a way actively avoiding home runs in run-scoring situations.

I don't think these conclusions, based on the quote and the text in the linked article, are unreasonable. I think they could be argued, though.

Hosmer indeed has performed well in the clutch. Using better stats than OPS, which I hate and never use, the story is still basically the same. Here are his career numbers by situation (AVG / OBP / SLG):

Bases Empty - .269 / .321 / .410 for a 101 wRC+ (1 percent above MLB average) over 1664 plate appearances

Men on Base - .294 / .354 / .448 for a 117 wRC+ over 1391 plate appearances

Men in Scoring - .279 / .359 / .417 for a 107 wRC+ over 812 plate appearances (has some overlap with Men on Base)

Whether or not you believe this is a skill, or whether or not Hosmer truly possesses a knack, the stats quite clearly show that Hosmer has so far performed much better in the clutch than with nobody on base. So, the next part is to look at Hosmer's approach to figure out why. Given the quotes above and my analysis of them, I would expect Hosmer to go more liner/ground ball and fewer fly balls in those situations with men on base and men in scoring position compared to the bases empty.

The following table shows Hosmer's batted ball frequencies broken down by base state from FanGraphs.

Base State LD% GB% FB% HR/FB%
Bases Empty 19.3% 54.0% 26.6% 12.2%
Men on Base 21.2% 49.3% 29.5% 11.6%
Men in Scoring 22.3% 48.0% 29.7% 10.7%

Based on these frequencies, Hosmer actually elevates the ball more in those clutch situations than with the bases empty. His ground-ball rate decreases with men on base and decreases further with men in scoring position. His fly ball rate increases. Though I did not include it here, Hosmer's popup rate almost doubles with men on base compared to bases empty. Hosmer's rate of pulling the ball / going to the opposite field doesn't really change much by the situation, so I can conclude only that Hosmer's approach changes in precisely the opposite way of what we're led to believe through his statements.

Strangely, Hosmer's rate of home runs per fly ball does decrease as men get closer to scoring, so it's possible that Hosmer hits weaker fly balls in clutch situations. This makes sense - if he's elevating the ball more, there may be more cans of corn involved. However, the average Hosmer fly ball is still a better fly ball than the MLB average fly ball.

For his career, Hosmer has a .258 / .754 OBP / SLG on fly balls according to FanGraphs. Over the same time period (2011-2015), MLB hit .217 / .628 on fly balls. Hosmer hitting more fly balls isn't really a bad thing here. The extra line drives help too.

Trying to dive further into root cause, I went to swing rates next. From Baseball Savant, I grabbed heat maps of pitches at which Hosmer swung with men on base and with the bases empty.

Bases Empty

hosmer swing bases empty

Men on Base

hosmer swing men on base

It's honestly pretty hard to see any differences. At most, I think Hosmer expands the zone a lot with men on base and maybe, maybe, goes after inside pitches more. The blue around the fringes looks like it expands quite a bit with men on base, and the plot is a little less tight in general. There are also three areas of yellow with men on base compared to one bigger blob of yellow with the bases empty. I'm not sure there's anything here though.

Without any concrete differences in swing rates, the next place to look is how pitchers approach him. It's possible, though unlikely, that pitchers would elevate the ball with men on base as compared to the bases empty. I grabbed heat maps showing all pitches thrown to Hosmer with the bases empty and with men on base.

Bases Empty

hosmer pitches no runners

Men on Base

hosmer pitches runners on

That seems fairly clear to me that pitchers are trying to keep the ball down and more away with men on base. Keeping the ball down and away is not a recipe for more fly balls.

If Hosmer is not changing where he swings and pitchers are not throwing pitches more conducive to fly balls, Hosmer has to be modifying his swing with men on base. That would be an interesting conclusion because modifying a swing, among the different paths of investigation here, would be the most conscious decision and most recognizable on a swing-to-swing basis. However, this conclusion's accuracy relies on eliminating all other potential causes, and I'm fairly sure I have not done that. I did not look at pitch types or actual video comparing Hosmer's swing with the bases empty compared to men on base.

While Hosmer appears to be a better hitter in the clutch, it's not because of the implied reasons in Castrovince's article*. An anti-homer approach is not what is actually happening. Rather than trying to stay gap-to-gap and not focusing on fly balls, Hosmer's approach with men on base is leading to more fly balls and better production in general.

*To be clear, Castrovince appears to be relaying thought processes from the Royals, not necessarily his own thoughts.