Hosmer believes his best is yet to come

Royals first baseman still has room for improved power production

March 5th, 2016

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Eric Hosmer is a World Series champion. And as of an induction ceremony just before the Royals' Cactus League game against the White Sox on Saturday afternoon, he's a Hall of Famer. (It's the Surprise Recreation Campus Hall of Fame, if you want to get truly technical, but why get lost in the details?)

The point is, though Hosmer is only 26 years old, it would be impossible to label his Major League career as anything other than a stirring success. He's hit for average, he's played dynamic defense at first base, he's run the bases well, he's represented Kansas City well, and he's come through with some huge moments on the October stage.

And yet, it still feels like Hosmer has not yet approached his ceiling. For whatever it's worth, he would agree with that sentiment.

"I definitely think my best season is yet to come," Hosmer said Saturday. "With where I'm in the lineup now -- before a guy like Kendrys [Morales] and behind a guy like [Lorenzo] Cain -- it's a position to succeed. At the same time, I just want to continue what we're doing as a team and just get back to that stage and win a championship."

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Hey, championships are great, as the Royals demonstrated when their World Series trophy was also unveiled before Saturday's game. But how about an American League MVP Award? The hype that preceded Hosmer's arrival and the 19 home runs he hit in his rookie year (2011) had the thought of him developing into that elite realm of player embedded in a lot of brains.

On second thought, forget the AL MVP Award. Let's start smaller. How about breaking arguably the funniest record in the sport -- Steve Balboni's single-season franchise record of 36 home runs?

"We definitely have to change that one," Hosmer said with a laugh.

In all seriousness, is Hosmer ever going to attain that kind of power production -- especially in a big home park that notoriously suppresses the long ball in the early and late portions of the schedule?

"You know, offensively, if you're going to put up 40-some home runs in the American League Central with the parks and the division and everything that goes into it, that's a monstrous year," Hosmer said. "I think as we've become accustomed to the division, we've realized, especially as a team, what we have to do to win games. We'll do a little small ball, do something different, use our legs. That's why you'll see me in the four-hole laying down a bunt."

Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore calls that being a "winning-type baseball player," the kind of term that would sound hokey if not coming from the mouth of a man who has proven the value of drafting and developing selfless, aggressive and assertive talents.

"Hoz is a special talent," Moore said. "He has great heart for the game. He's got a chance to play and be successful for a long, long time. Even when he was struggling early in his career, he would do something to impact the game in a positive way, whether it be making a play, going first to third or laying down a bunt."

That Hosmer, who has two more seasons before he's eligible for free agency, is a "winning-type player" is well-established by the fact that he's been one of the foremost faces on a Royals team that, well, has won a lot of games over the past three years.

But what is the next step in Hosmer's evolution as a hitter?

Last year, building upon some big blasts in the 2014 postseason, Hosmer's homers-per-fly-ball rate jumped considerably, from 6.8 percent to 15.1. The only problem is that his fly ball rate was reduced, from 31.9 to 24.4. A career-long trend of more than half of his batted balls going for groundballs continued.

"If I was in the National League Central, I'd be trying to hit fly balls," Hosmer said. "You'd adjust your game off of that. But I think you basically just try to drive in runs. For me, RBIs are important. Home runs aren't that important. If I can drive in runs and be gap to gap, the power stats take care of themselves."

Hosmer drove in 93 runs last season, by far the highest total of his career. And again, that's a product of what he had surrounding him in an improved Kansas City lineup. The Royals will tell you Hosmer, with an .824 OPS with runners in scoring position over the past two seasons (versus a .774 OPS overall in that span), has a knack from coming through in the clutch, as is their wont. The sabermetric community will scoff, as is their wont.

What is indisputable about Hosmer is his age. And with that age comes the possibility of power upside.

"He's to the middle of the field," Moore said. "He's still 26, so [the home runs] are going to continue to come. History tells us that you learn to hit first, and then you become a smarter hitter and you're able to sit on pitches and have a more relaxed approach. You get stronger, you become more physical. That happens in time. But Hoz has enough raw power to hit the ball out of any ballpark."

Kauffman Stadium included?

"I think that there are some guys where the ballpark freaked 'em out," manager Ned Yost said. "I don't think the ballpark has ever freaked Hoz out. He's been a guy who, even early on, could drive the ball to all fields and use left, center and right to his advantage offensively. And I think the more you understand the league and the opposition, that's when the power numbers start to come into play."

Last year's rise in Hosmer's homer rate was encouraging, as was the rise in isolated power mark, from .127 to .162.

Still, the prevailing line on Hosmer is that, whether he ever becomes the MVP-type player that some especially enthusiastic prospect watchers touted him to be, he's been the perfect middle-of-the-order accompaniment to a lineup that prioritizes putting pressure on the opposition, making contact and catching the ball.

Nobody's complaining about Hosmer's career. But man, you'd sure like to see him cross the Balboni threshold.