Hosmer looks to elevate, but won't revamp swing
First baseman has had success in past with hard contact and below-average launch angle
PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Padres want Eric Hosmer to be Eric Hosmer. Which is to say: they aren't going to ask him to change.
As much as anything, that philosophy applies to Hosmer's swing plane, which has generated endless buzz since he signed his eight-year contract with San Diego last February.
In the first year of that contract, Hosmer slumped to a .322 on-base percentage and a .398 slugging percentage -- his lowest marks since 2014. But the Padres didn’t see a hitter in need of an overhaul. They saw one in need of relatively minor adjustments, which should get Hosmer back to where he was before he signed.
"The over-arching goal is getting back to who he was in Kansas City, when he was successful,” said hitting coach Johnny Washington, who regularly flew to South Florida to meet with Hosmer during the offseason.
Hosmer's second season as a Padre officially began on Wednesday, as he started a 5-5 Cactus League tie against Arizona. He grounded out twice.
That needs to happen less in 2019. Without question, the most important number Hosmer needs to change is his launch angle. His -1.2 mark last season was second-worst in the Majors. For the most part, Hosmer's hard-hit rate was similar to his numbers from previous seasons in Kansas City. But he hit too many balls into the ground, putting him at the mercy of opposing infield defenses.
This, of course, is happening at the same time that baseball is undergoing its launch-angle revolution. Everywhere, there are tales of hitters who have overhauled their mechanics with an emphasis of putting the baseball in the air at an extreme rate. In a lot of cases, it's paid major dividends.
But the Padres won't ask for those same kinds of changes for Hosmer. They don't want Hosmer drastically altering his approach in order to skyrocket to the top of the launch-angle leaderboard. In the past, he's been a very good hitter with many of the same swing principles that keep his launch angle relatively low.
In 2017, Hosmer averaged 3.8 degrees and posted an .882 OPS. In '15, that average was 5.5, and he posted an .822 OPS. Both of those launch angles are well below the league average.
So how can the Padres get the most out of Hosmer without risking the volatility of a swing overhaul? (Not everyone can so easily change a swing they’ve used for their entire lives, after all.) Well, there might be a sweet spot for Hosmer, perhaps somewhere between five and 10 degrees on average. If he isn't rolling over on the baseball, Hosmer can be an effective hitter with a lower launch angle. That's because he hits the ball extremely hard with a lower launch angle.
Last season, there were 198 hitters who hit 40 baseballs between 0-10 degrees. Among them, Hosmer ranked 8th in slugging percentage on those balls in play, immediately behind Giancarlo Stanton, Manny Machado and Ronald Acuna.
And that was not an anomaly. In 2017, arguably Hosmer's best statistical year, his average exit velocity was 99.1 mph on baseballs he hit between 0 and 10 degrees. That tied him with Stanton for fifth in the sport.
"There are things he does naturally that he's always done throughout his career that allow him to drive the ball in the air and the other way," Washington said. "That's when he does the most of his damage. That's when he has the most success."
Do the Padres want to see Hosmer smashing the baseball at 25 degrees into the Petco Porch? Sure. They'd love that. And there were times Hosmer did that last season. To that end, his early batting-practice sessions seem focused on elevation.
But that might not be the key to a bounce-back season for Hosmer. Too often last year, he rolled over on the ball and grounded to second. When he’s successful, Hosmer is generally driving the ball to left field and left-center.
Make no mistake: There will be swing changes coming. The Padres -- meaning Hosmer, manager Andy Green and Washington -- wouldn't get into the specifics of those changes. But they'll probably become a bit more apparent as Hosmer gets spring at-bats.
But in the club’s eyes, those changes aren’t designed to make Hosmer into something new. He's still going to be Eric Hosmer.
"Getting back to who I am as a hitter," Hosmer said. “That's what I'm trying to do -- stick to my strengths."