If you were one of the many fantasy owners who believed in Eric Hosmer's 2011 rookie season, decided to focus on other positions early in your draft last year and took Hosmer in the middle rounds, you probably had trouble at first base all season long.
No one should fault you for going that route. Hosmer hit .293/.334/.465 with 19 homers, 78 RBI and 11 steals in 128 games as a rookie, seeming to validating everything he showed while quickly rising through the ranks in the minors. Given that he had that foundation and started fulfilling his potential right away, he looked like a safe bet to continue on that trajectory.
However, when the 2012 season started, Hosmer couldn't do anything right. He ended up hitting .232/.304/.359 with 14 homers, 60 RBI and 16 steals in 152 games. His wOBA plummeted to .291 and his isolated slugging fell all the way to .127 from .172 in 2011. Put it all together, and it adds up to a -1.1 WAR.
As disastrous as last year was for Hosmer, there were a few encouraging signs if you look deep enough. And that's why, in this week's installment of Burning Questions, we ask if there's value for fantasy owners to again wait on first base and target Hosmer when all the seemingly better options are off the board.
The case for a Hosmer bounce back this season begins with his age. The first baseman is just 24 years old. Even with a terrible 2012 campaign on the back of his baseball card, we don't know everything about a player before he has spent a quarter-century on the earth. This is a player who is still growing, and who may well have another level he can reach organically.
Further, you have to be confident in a guy with Hosmer's strikeout and walk rates. His strikeout rate crept up last year, but it was still a respectable 15.9 percent, compared to 14.6 percent in 2011 and below 14 percent his last two years in the minors. Last year, he increased his walk rate to 9.4 percent from six percent. That sort of discerning eye should help get him into positive counts.
In addition, he was more disciplined at the plate last year than he was in 2011. According to Fangraphs' plate discipline stats, he swung at just one-third of pitches outside the strike zone, down from 36.7 percent in 2011. He shaved a couple percentage points off his swing rate and half a percentage point off his swinging-strike rate. Again, these are not the numbers and this is not the temperament of a player who hits .232/.304/.359. Even if this were all our evidence for a rebound season for Hosmer in 2013, I'd be feeling pretty good about it. However, we have yet to get to the coup de grace.
You probably assume that Hosmer had a pretty bad BABIP last year. It's not often a guy hits .232 but posts a huge BABIP. Well, you're right -- but I bet if you tried to pin down the actual number, you'd miss high. That's because Hosmer had a .255 BABIP last year. There's no doubt his 53.6 percent ground-ball rate played a part in that. Vince Coleman or Rickey Henderson might have been able to succeed with a ground-ball rate that high, but someone like Hosmer will struggle. Still, .255 is laughable. His line-drive rate was 18.5 percent, which is a tick below league average, but even throwing that in there doesn't fully explain a .255 BABIP. The luck fairy was not on Hosmer's side last year, and we can expect that to make its way back toward the average this season, especially when we consider his solid plate discipline and willingness to take a walk. To what would a higher BABIP translate? Well, the Bill James Handbook projects a .298 BABIP for Hosmer this year, giving him a .276/.342/.442 slash with 20 home runs.
Let's get back to the question that's burning us. Should fantasy owners again be willing to take a pass on the elite at first base and target Hosmer late? If you have a shot at Joey Votto, Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, the answer is, "Of course not." For the sake of this column, we'll assume that most everyone who owns Buster Posey will be playing his as a catcher. But once we get into the next tier, which includes Edwin Encarnacion, Paul Goldschmidt, Adrian Gonzalez, Allen Craig and Billy Butler, it becomes a lot more feasible. Those five are all coming off the board between the picks of about 30 and 50 in a typical draft, meaning you'll have two selections when those guys are the highest-ranked first basemen on the board. If you've decided you're confident in a bounce back season out of Hosmer, you could grab yourself a top-tier starter such as Cole Hamels, Matt Cain or Jered Weaver with a pick in that range, and an outfielder like Jay Bruce, Adam Jones, B.J. Upton or Matt Holliday. That's a pretty nice return for passing on first base early.
There are reasons to worry about Hosmer. But given that first base is so deep (after all, we didn't even mention Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, Paul Konerko, Ryan Howard or Mark Teixeira above), I'm willing to target him late and go after other positions early. If for some reason I miss out on Hosmer, I'll still have plenty of comparable options. And if I'm able to snag Hosmer, I'll get a cheap source of 20 to 25 homers, 80 to 85 RBI and 18 to 20 steals.