KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Eric Hosmer harbors an odd relationship with footage of himself. He refuses to view at-bats from his wretched 2012 season, because the tape “makes me sick,” he said. The video from last year is more encouraging — except when cued up next to his at-bats from 2014.
During the past few weeks, as Hosmer has descended deeper and deeper into a funk, he finds himself watching more and more images of his former self. A torrid second half in 2013 established Hosmer as a potential All-Star pick for this year. Instead, when he watches the tape, he notices glitches in his timing, his hand positioning, his basic ability to control the barrel of his bat.
“There’s quite a bit of a difference,” he said on Wednesday afternoon, a few hours before another hitless outing in another Royals defeat.
Despite six losses in seven games, the Royals (40-38) remain in consideration for playoff contention. They have clung to relevancy even with Hosmer and his .645 on-base plus slugging percentage, a first baseman on pace for an offensive season worse than that nausea-inducing campaign two years ago. He is caught in a spiral, experimenting with mechanical tweaks during the day and flailing in search of results at night.
Even with his sterling defense at first base, Hosmer has been one of the worst every-day players in baseball, according to FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement. The statistic measures a player’s overall contribution to his team’s win total, and Hosmer ranks 164th among the 167 hitters qualified for the batting title.
The plunge arrived without warning. On May 11, Hosmer doubled twice to complete a road trip in Seattle. His OPS was .800, and he looked ascendant. The looks deceived: In the 41 games since, Hosmer has hit .188 with a .507 OPS. He has walked nine times, and struck out 37.
The root of his trouble appears to be pitch selection. Contrary to popular belief, Hosmer does not swing at every baseball thrown near him. But he does offer at 50.1 percent of the pitches he sees. On pitches outside the strike zone, he is hacking at a career-high 38.3 percent. His aggression has not been validated: Hosmer is hitting line drives at a career-worst 13.6 percent, down from 22.4 percent in 2013.
“That is what happens when things start to go south for him,” one American League scout said. “He tries to swing his way out of it.”
Under the guidance of new hitting coach Dale Sveum, the Royals’ offense has rebounded. Yet Hosmer continues to flounder. He looked “defeated” at the plate, remarked one opposing player during this most recent homestand, “like he knows he’s out before he even gets up there.”
Hosmer rejected the notion he has lost himself at the plate. He insisted his extended slump has not chipped his confidence. He melds his sense of self-worth — the No. 3 pick in the 2008 draft, Baseball America’s No. 8 prospect in 2011 — with his experiences recovering from failure in the majors.
“I’ve been through it too many times,” Hosmer said. “I’ve gone through a rough start. I’ve gone through a whole rough year. I know my abilities, and I know I can get hot.”
The organization still regards him highly. Each day, manager Ned Yost writes Hosmer’s name near the top of his lineup, even as he concedes this slump has surprised him.
Yost hoped Hosmer had graduated past that stage of his career.
“But that doesn’t dampen my faith in him as a hitter,” Yost said. “He’s a guy that can hit .220 one month, and .360 the next.”
Yost leans on last season for encouragement. During the final four months, after a troubling start, Hosmer hit .318 with an .862 OPS. A year later he collaborates with Sveum daily in search of that form.
Sveum disdains recounting his advice to his hitters. When asked for reasons for optimism with Hosmer, he replied, “You’d have to ask him about those things,” and walked away. Hosmer framed the sessions as filled with trial and error. “Just try different stuff,” he said. “Whatever you feel comfortable with.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Hosmer locked into an adjustment with his hands. He lowered them closer to his waist, and reduced the length of his swing. Hosmer felt he could better control the barrel when making contact. That night, he cracked a pair of singles against left-handed ace Clayton Kershaw. The next evening, he completed just his third multi-walk game of the season.
For now, this passes for progress. The Royals can only hope that during this summer, Hosmer resembles the player from the past that he watches on video so often.
“It’s not the first time I’ve done it,” Hosmer said. “So it’s not panic, or nothing like that. You realize what you’ve got to do, and how you get out of it.”