1. Eric Hosmer was very impressive as a 21-year-old rookie in 2011.
2. Eric Hosmer was very disappointing as 22-year-old sophomore in 2012.
So who is Eric Hosmer? Future All-Star or future Claudell Washington? One reason the Royals traded for James Shields and Ervin Santana is they believe Hosmer will return to -- or, better yet, improve upon -- his 2011 numbers, when he hit .293/.334/.465 with 19 home runs. Those numbers slipped last season to .232/.304/.359 with 14 home runs, numbers so poor you wondered whether he played through some lingering injury (there were no such reports). Jerry Crasnick wrote on Hosmer before spring games began, and Hosmer said he hopes an offseason strength, conditioning and nutrition program will keep him stronger this year.
He's also working on some mechanical issues with his back leg that he said left him too slow to catch up to fastballs and susceptible to off-speed pitches. As you can see from the hit chart to the right, he was hitting a lot of shallow and routine fly balls to left field and left-center; only three of his 14 home runs were pulled to right field.
The positive thing about Hosmer is he's still very young. He's 2 years younger than Domonic Brown, and we're still waiting for Brown to do something. I like to look at comparable players to help me make an evaluation, and there are two ways we can look at Hosmer. Through his first two seasons he's been about a league-average hitter. Baseball-Reference.com lists his OPS+ right at 100, so we can compare Hosmer to others who had a similar OPS+. On the other hand, if we focus on just his 2012 output, where his OPS+ was well below league average, we'd get a different list of comparable hitters.
For the first list, I looked at players since 1969 who had at least 1,000 plate appearances through their age-22 season. The players clustered from a 97 OPS+ to 103 include Roberto Alomar, Lou Whitaker, Ruben Sierra, Chet Lemon, Adrian Beltre and Buddy Bell. Good players, although they all played key defensive positions. They also included Rick Manning, Wil Cordero and Chris Speier. Washington was actually at 106 -- exactly where his career mark ended up. George Brett was also at 106. Brett won a batting title at 23 and then started hitting for power at 24. Hosmer probably won't turn into George Brett, but George Brett didn't look like George Brett at 22, either.
For the second list, I looked at all 22-year-olds since 1969 who had 500 plate appearances. There are 146 of them; Hosmer's OPS+ of 82 ranks 124th, right below Jerry Remy (and right above Jose Reyes). Only two of the players below or right above Hosmer were first basemen, one being Daric Barton, who hit .226 for the A's in 2008. Most of the players are middle infielders, catchers or center fielders.
There are a few interesting names to point out, however:
Ryne Sandberg, 1982 Cubs (90 OPS+): Sandberg hit .271/.312/.372 as a rookie third basemen. He's obviously a different type of player than Hosmer -- moved to second base, more speed -- but the point is Sandberg wasn't all that great as a 22-year-old. His power developed at 24, and he turned into a Hall of Famer.
Robin Ventura, 1990 White Sox (83 OPS+): This was Ventura's rookie year, so he didn't have the year of major league experience like Hosmer did; he hit a pedestrian .249/.324/.318. His walk rate was similar to Hosmer's, and neither struck out much. (Hosmer struck out more but plays in an era with more strikeouts.) The next year Ventura hit .284/.367/.442 and increased his home runs from five to 23.
Dale Murphy, 1978 Braves (80 OPS+): The other first baseman, Murphy showed power (22 home runs), but hit just .224 and led the NL in strikeouts. Similar build to Hosmer -- tall and lean -- although Murphy was athletic enough to eventually move to center field and become a two-time MVP. (Hosmer did steal 16 bases in 17 attempts, so it's not like he's Prince Fielder out there.)
Larry Parrish, 1976 Expos (80 OPS+): Like Hosmer, Parrish played pretty well as a 21-year-old and then regressed at 22. He had a string of productive years starting at age 24.
One other guy worth mentioning is Johnny Damon, who posted a 73 OPS+ at 22 after playing better at 21. After hitting 17 home runs his first three seasons, he hit 18 at 24. But, again, he's a much different type of player.
The projection systems see Hosmer bouncing back to his 2011 numbers -- but not improving. ZiPS has him at .273/.339/.435, the others slightly better.
What to make of all this? I don't know. Hosmer has to be considered a huge wild card; his inability to pull the ball with authority last year is a concern, but maybe he's just a talented young player who needs to make adjustments. We have seen him produce at the big league level, so we know the ability is there somewhere. On the other hand, it's never a good sign when a young player regresses as severely as he did.
So who is Eric Hosmer? I like the Ventura comparison the best, although as a first baseman he won't have Ventura's defensive value. That means a good player, maybe a borderline All-Star at first base in his best years, but probably not the future MVP candidate he looked like a year ago.