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Fantasy baseball Burning Questions: Is Hosmer a top-10 first baseman?

Photo: Scott Kane/Icon SMI

Eric Hosmer's improvement in hitting to all fields let him to rebound from a difficult 2012 last season.

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It doesn't take a genius to point out 2012 as an outlier season for Eric Hosmer. The once highly touted prospect hit .293/.334/.465 with 19 homers as a rookie in 2011, then rode a scorching second half last season to finish with a .302/.353/.448 slash with 17 jacks.

His sophomore season, however, was a nightmare from start to finish. Hosmer ended up hitting .232/.304/.359 with 14 homers in 598 at-bats. His fWAR was -1.7, suggesting a replacement player taking his place would have made the Royals nearly two wins better. In the fourth installment of our 2014 Burning Questions series, we ask what exactly happened to Hosmer in 2012, and why should the fantasy community believe that he is a top-10 option this season?

Outlier numbers, whether positive or negative, are often driven by luck. As always, the first place we check for luck with hitters is BABIP. Right off the bat, we have our first piece to the Hosmer puzzle. His BABIP in 2012 was .255, a full 70 points lower than the previous season. Last year, it shot back up to .335. Clearly, his second-year BABIP was out of line with the other 1,200 or so plate appearances in his young career.

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Of course, we cannot consider BABIP in a vacuum. While there is a lot of noise in the number, a player who consistently makes weak contact or strikes out a lot earns his low BABIP. That's why it's essential to also inspect line-drive rate and strikeout rate.

Hosmer's K-rate has remained essentially flat over his career. It was 14.6 percent in 2011, 15.9 percent in 2012 and 14.7 percent last year. Sure, it was more than a percentage point higher in his one down year, but that's not enough to explain such a dramatic shift in BABIP, especially when taking into account his batted-ball numbers.

In his rookie year, 18.7 percent of all balls Hosmer put in play were line drives. The following season, when his BABIP was .255, his line-drive rate was 18.5 percent. His pop-up rate actually fell by nearly two percentage points to 9.7 percent. Last year, his line-drive rate surged to a career high 22.4 percent, while he further cut his pop-up rate to 6.9 percent.

That leads to our smoking gun: Hosmer's terrible 2012 was the product of little more than an anomalous BABIP. However, he didn't turn it around immediately in 2013. He hit .250/.337/.306 in April and .269/.307/.352 in May, raising the specter of another disastrous season ahead. He picked things up in June, and posted a .323/.379/.473 slash with eight homers after the break. Given the theme of this column, you probably won't be surprised to learn that his second-half BABIP was .368. In the first half, it was .310.

Is there anything that explains why Hosmer's BABIP suddenly turned around in June of last year? Why yes, there is. The following are spray charts for Hosmer, courtesy of Brooks Baseball. The first is for the entire 2012 season and first two months of 2013. The second begins in June of last year and goes through the end of the season.

All those black dots are outs, while the green dots are singles and the blue dots are doubles. If you draw an invisible line from the standard position of the second baseman all the way to the outfield wall and look at the dots to the right of that invisible line, something should stand out. From April 2012 through May 2013, Hosmer had just 33 singles or doubles in that area of the field. In the last four months of the 2013 season, however, he had 30. We don't have access to the exact data, but this suggests teams stopped shifting on him after he showed a willingness to use the entire field. Once he made teams play him honestly, Hosmer was able to take advantage of the pull side of the field once again, resulting in the production many expected of him ever since the Royals made him the third overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft.

Even with Miguel Cabrera moving back across the diamond, first base is as shallow as it has been in years. The position is top heavy, with Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Davis, Prince Fielder, Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion all likely to be off the board within the first 20 picks, with Freddie Freeman coming about a round-and-a-half later. The talent pool starts to dry up after that, and there isn't anything even approaching consensus rankings beyond those six guys. For my money, Hosmer is the easy choice as the No. 7 first baseman on the board. With teams now likely to play him straight up, fantasy owners should see a full season's worth of production from the guy he appeared to be after his big rookie season. I've got him penciled in for a .303/.358/.465 slash with 21 homers. That's likely to make him a better option than other first basemen in his neighborhood, such as Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalez.

MORE BURNING QUESTIONS:

Part I: Can Starlin Castro bounce back in 2014?
Part II: Is Masahiro Tanaka a worthwhile risk for owners?
Part III: Should Doug Fister be considered a top pitcher?
Part IV: Is Eric Hosmer a top-10 first baseman?
Part V: How will Chris Davis follow up his successful 2013?
Part VI: Will Brandon Phillips rack up 100+ RBI again?
Part VII: What can owners expect from Josh Donaldson?
Part VIII: Is Hanley Ramirez worth the risk of injury?
Part IX: Can Josh Hamilton rediscover his power stroke?
Part X: How should owners value Javier Baez, George Springer?

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