Eric Hosmer made his debut in May 2011, making 2017 his seventh Major League season. Seven years is an awful lot of time to evaluate someone, allowing plenty of time to get a baseline for a person, their positives and negatives, and their potential. It’s also just a long time in general. How many of you have held the same exact full-time job for seven years? How many of you spent seven years at the same high school? Or seven years at the same college? In 2011, the Affordable Care Act was barely a year old, the biggest viral Youtube hit was Nyan Cat, and the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA Championship over the newly-minted superteam Miami Heat.
In that time, we’ve seen Hosmer do an awful lot of things. The Royals even made two postseasons, winning an American League Championship and a World Series in back-to-back years. We’ve seen Hosmer do good things, like hit a key triple in the 2014 Wild Card Game, get a bloop hit in Game 2 of the 2015 ALDS and, of course, make his iconic mad dash to home in the 2015 World Series. We’ve also seen Hosmer do a lot of other things, not good things, like shoot roughly three million grounders to the second baseman, dive to first base unnecessarily, and make a big looping swing at a slider only in the rough vicinity of the home plate’s zip code.
The 2017 Royals, if you haven’t noticed, have been very, very bad; specifically, it is the offense that has been particularly odious (so bad that a particular orange head of state has noticed and is talking about how much more tremendous his version is). Kansas City’s offense ranks dead last in baseball by half a run per game, and yes that is as terrible as it sounds.
At the center of it all is Hosmer, who at the end of this season will be able to test out free agency for the first time. Coming into the year, Hosmer had big hopes, as news broke last July that he and his agent, Scott Boras, could be seeking something as large as a 10-year, $200 million deal.
Remember how the Royals have been terrible at scoring baseball points so far? Hosmer is hitting .203/.267/.261 in 75 plate appearances. He has two extra base hits. If you prefer OPS as your stat, he’s at .528, and if you prefer wRC+, he’s at 49. If April ended today, that would be the worst month he’s had in his entire career.
To some, this level of stagnation is surprising. To others who have been paying attention, it shouldn’t be. After seven years, it’s pretty clear, and looking at Billy Butler will help us find out why.
Butler flamed out after signing a three-year, $30 million with the Oakland Athletics in 2015 that the Royals wisely decided against matching. He is still currently a free agent, although not voluntarily. According to Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement he has been ‘worth’ -1.7 WAR over the past three seasons. Though he’s been an average hitter over that stretch, his lack of baserunning skill, his penchant for double plays, and his lack of defensive mastery anywhere on the diamond means that he’s just not valuable anymore. Oakland up and cut him last year with one year remaining on the deal. Butler was, and is, a sunk cost. His career seems about over and he just turned 31.
Of course, Butler was pretty great when he was here. Remember the 2012 All-Star Game? And especially the 2012 Home Run Derby?
Man, that was fun. Importantly, Butler was a very good player for years before turning into a pumpkin all at once and flaming out all at once.
Hosmer is not going to make $200 million, for one very simple reason: Hosmer is a poor man’s Butler. Butler is better than Hosmer in pretty much every single statistical category.
At this point, it’s prudent to head off some criticism that’s bound to happen, so if you see a comment from someone who LOVES Hosmer and thinks this article is full of crap because ‘insert thoughtless reason here,’ feel free to copy and paste the following rebuttal: Yes, Hosmer looks more like a baseball player than Butler does. But baseball is not a beauty contest, and nobody’s cheekbones have ever had anything to do with hitting a baseball.
Yes, Hosmer is probably more beloved in Kansas City for his many memorable moments. But baseball is not a feeling contest. Yes, the game of baseball is more than just numbers. But numbers are direct representations of what happened on the field, and if you want to stick your head in the sand and pretend they don’t exist, that’s fine—but it’s not how front offices run baseball teams.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s do a quick comparison of Butler and Hosmer. Butler’s data is from his first seven seasons in Kansas City, matching Hosmer’s seven-year career. Butler and Hosmer were both 21 when they debuted, too, which helps with the comparison. Here we go:
Highlighted in green is the better number. Player A is, as you probably guessed, Butler, and Player B is Hosmer. During the same ages with the same amount of experience, Butler hit for more average, more power, walked more, and struck out less than Hosmer, providing more value as judged by both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference WAR. The only areas in which Hosmer bested Butler were baserunning—where Hosmer himself has a negative value—and defense, where Hosmer was only about ten runs better, functionally the same defensive sinkhole that Butler was.
This makes sense, actually. Look at the batted ball profile over that time between the two of them:
If this seems unbelievable uncanny to you, you’re absolutely correct. Between the three types of batted balls—line drives, ground balls, and fly balls—the three types of field areas a ball can be hit to—pull, center, and opposite—and the type of exit velocity of batted balls—soft, medium, and hard—-the combined difference between Hosmer and Butler is only 25.2 percentage points. That’s only a little more than Hosmer’s difference within his own batted ball profile between his remarkably consistent 2015 and 2016 seasons.
It is important to note how much similarity Hosmer has to Butler, who in his first year of free agency at 29 was only able to secure a three-year, $30 million deal and unable to make it through the deal before being released. Hosmer will enter free agency in his age-28 season, which is indeed younger, but Hosmer is working with the same exact batted ball profile and has been outhit by Butler so far by a very wide margin at the Major League Level.
Hosmer and Butler are not necessarily going to suffer the fate; they are different players, after all. Hosmer should get more money than Butler, as he is younger than Butler was and has a reputation of playing a better first base than the numbers say he does; Hosmer can point to the three Gold Gloves on his mantle as evidence.
But if Hosmer makes much more than Butler, it’s fair to say that he’s doing so on the strength of everything except his performance as a Major Leaguer over seven years. Potential will only carry you so far. For Hosmer, it’s carried him to being Billy Butler, except not as good. He’s got some potential left—remember Alex Gordon’s age-27 season—but time’s a-wastin’.