Every year, we get a new iPhone. Every year. This is regardless of the success of the previous iPhone, whether or not a new iPhone is really needed, and whether or not the new iPhone has any new ideas. Maybe in 2009 the new iPhone was cool, but it's 2016, and it's just not a thing that should matter. Why would you spend $300+ on a new phone every single year anyway? I just can't get excited about a regular annual release of a screenbox that annoys as often as it delights.
Eric Hosmer is not an iPhone.* Eric Hosmer is, instead, a baseball player, with arms and legs and without a screen on the front of his body. Of those baseball players, Hosmer is a good one. He's been an above average hitter for his career, has multiple Gold Gloves, and at the young age of 26 owns more glorious postseason moments than many of the most veteran players in Major League Baseball.
However, there is an annoying part of Hosmer's game, one that keeps coming back again and again just like the iPhone you know is coming but don't care about.
But before we do that, let's look at two different players from last year. Compare:
- Batting average: .333
- On base percentage: .410
- Slugging percentage: .574
- Walk rate: 11.7%
- Strikeout rate: 16%
- Batting average: .253
- On base percentage: .296
- Slugging percentage: .316
- Walk rate: 6.9%
- Strikeout rate: 20.2%
Because I am a dirty liar, I shall now reveal to you that both of those are Hosmer. The Player A Hosmer happened from April 6 to May 15 of 2015.
Here's the problem--Player B happened from May 16 to July 18. This covered a stretch of 50 games and over 200 plate appearances. Basically, Hosmer was Chris Getz for a third of the season. It was a major slump, one that saw significant decreases across the board; Hosmer's plate discipline tanked at the same time as both his average and power abilities vanished.
These stretches have happened every year of Hosmer's career. In 2014, he had a 45-game, 201-plate appearance slump that saw him hit .186/.229/.266 from May 13 to June 30. From the start of the season until June 5, 54 games in, Hosmer hit .259/.313/.325. 2012 was an entire-year slump.
Now, we all know that Hosmer has extraordinary talent. LOOK AT WHAT HE DID TO THIS BASEBALL
Hosmer's natural ability is almost unfair, as he has a swing that is equal parts violent and graceful. It allows him to hit to all fields, and his power is to all fields as well. When he's on, the guy is a monster.
Of course, nobody's on at all times. Slumping is as natural to baseball as bubble gum and failing to understand what exactly constitutes a balk, but Hosmer's traditional slumps are huge and last 200 plate appearances. This happens year after year: pure unadulterated baseball pulverization followed by a frenetic cluster of grounders to first base and whiffs at balls feet out of the strike zone.
We can visualize this through a rolling average, which is just basically an average over a specific period that changes as time passes. In this case, we'll use a 30 game rolling average of wRC+; we're using 30 games to eliminate some of the crazier things that can happen over the course of a week or two, and we're using wRC+ because it takes into account average, on base percentage, power, and controls for ballparks and overall scoring environment. Behold the Hosmercoaster:
There are clearly peaks and valleys going on here. Of course no player is going to be perfectly consistent, and slumps are part of the game. But consistency can be achieved. Below is that same graph for the last three good years of Billy Butler's career:
Now, the peaks and valley thing can certainly work--Mike Trout says hello--and streaky hitters are not necessarily bad hitters. To succeed as a streaky hitter, though, you need to have higher highs and higher lows. Since Hosmer doesn't have the pure home run swing that Trout, Josh Donaldson, Bryce Harper, and others have, his highs aren't going to be as high; containing slumps to more minor ones shorter periods of time is a great way to improve.
Here's the most important part of all of this: Hosmer has, thus far, avoided his slump, and that is the main reason he's having another breakout season. Last year's slump began mid-May, with Hosmer topping out at an OPS of .984 after 36 games before falling to .769 after Hosmer's 79th game.
This year, Hosmer topped out at a .966 OPS after 39 games, and for a while it looked like, almost exactly like last year, he was in for one of his slumps. Over his next seven games and 30 plate appearances, Hosmer hit .103/.100/.138 with a 0% walk rate and a 37% strikeout rate. His OPS plummeted to .848, and I started writing an article (this one!) about how Hosmer was in one of his slumps again. I decided to wait a little longer to make certain he was in one before publishing.
It was a good call. A funny thing happened, one that Hosmer hasn't done in his entire career: he bounced back quickly. After a full week of hitting exactly like a pitcher, he went back to being ERIC HOSMER. Over his last five games, Hosmer has had five straight multi-hit games and has accrued six extra base hits. His OPS is now back up to .929.
I haven't allowed myself to get excited about Hosmer's 2016 season yet. We've seen him rake for weeks at a time only to turn back into a pumpkin. But this year, he's found consistency where there has been none in the past. There's plenty of time for Hosmer to enter an extended slump, of course, and knowing his history it wouldn't surprise me. I wouldn't expect him to continue hitting 55% above league average for the rest of the year, either. But, so far, Hosmer has avoided his slump. If the Royals are going to succeed sans Mike Moustakas this year, they will need everything Hosmer can give.