Padres’ Eric Hosmer looks to make even more changes

By Kevin Acee
San Diego Union-Tribune
San Diego Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer bats during a spring training practice Wednesday in Peoria, Arizona. The former Royal changed his swing again in 2020 and hit more balls in the air than he had previously. He hopes tp carry that momentum into the 2021 season.

PEORIA, Ariz. —  It was an almost imperceptible delay and only a slightly more evident slowdown.

But it made quite a bit of difference for 38 games in a season like no other, one that gave promise to the idea Eric Hosmer can be as significant to the San Diego Padres on the field as he is in the clubhouse.

“Tempo,” the former Kansas City Royals World Series champion said Wednesday, smiling wide, as if the word were magic.

It sort of was for him. It helped turn one of the game’s most prolific groundball hitters into a guy who sprayed line drives and fly balls all over the yard.

Slowing down allowed him to stay back, see the ball longer and had the side effect of keeping his back side more grounded as he struck the ball.

“He wasn’t rushed,” Padres hitting coach Damion Easley said simply.

Oh, Hosmer’s swinging motion can still cause whiplash just watching it. That thing is violent, like something out of a “Braveheart” battle scene.

And his pre-swing leg kick is still pronounced, like what might be seen on a dance floor at a wedding. But now he begins it a rabbit’s heartbeat later and it lasts about that much longer.

Study video of him hacking any one of dozens of balls into the ground in 2019 and then look at video of the many balls he put in the air in ’20, and it is evident.

“It gives you the space to let that ball travel,” Easley said. “Then as you are starting your swing — we always say stay behind the ball — it allows you the space to stay behind the baseball and therefore get the barrel out front and the ball get in the air.”

Hosmer, who will reach the coveted 10 years of service time early this season, has always been able to bruise a baseball. He routinely ranks among the top 20 to 50 in the majors in average exit velocity. (He has been as high as eighth, in 2016.)

It’s just that the ball was also left with skid marks more often than not.

From his rookie season with the Royals in 2011 through 2019, Hosmer’s ground ball rate of 54.5 percent was 19th highest in the majors. From 2018 to ’19, his first two seasons with the Padres, no one hit the ball on the ground more frequently than Hosmer at 58.2 percent.

Last year, his ground ball rate was 46.2 percent. Had Hosmer had enough plate appearances to qualify, that would have ranked 44th highest.

One example of the difference putting the ball in the air can make:

Hosmer produced an extra-base hit every 9.5 at-bats in 2020, compared to every 11.8 at-bats from 2018 to ‘19. Over the course of a 162-game season, that would be about a dozen more doubles, triples and/or home runs.

“It’s certainly a big deal, but I would say for me it’s not as important because I just want to be productive,” said Hosmer, who last season batted .287 with an .855 OPS, both highest by far in his three years with the Padres. “Misses are misses. There are certain things that jump out that you recognize as adjustments need to be made. For me personally, I’m more of a feel-type guy. If I’m in the cage working on stuff and doing the adjustments and feeling my way through that, then I’m confident that the result will get better. … I understand I made some pretty good adjustments when it comes to that stuff. There’s also a lot of adjustments that I can still be a lot better on. Just trying to tighten my game up, every way possible.”

Hosmer, who turned 31 in October, actually was disappointed in his ’20 campaign due to one factor that had not ever been an issue for him. After leading the majors in games played (1,237) from 2012 to ’19, the first baseman appeared in just 38 of the Padres’ 60 games last season. He missed 12 games with a stomach ailment early and nine more in September when his left index finger was fractured afterit was hit by a pitch as he squared to bunt.

“It’s up and down for me, honestly,” Hosmer said in assessing his season. “My first goal every year is to stay healthy and be on the field. From a production standpoint, I think I definitely upped that a little bit. But at the end of the day, I wanted to be out there every day with my team. I wanted to be consistent on staying healthy and all that stuff. I definitely want to do a better job of that.”

If he can maintain his career norm in games played and match his 2020 execution, the Padres will have the complete player they hoped to get when they made him (at the time) the highest-paid player in franchise history with an eight-year, $144 million contract. He has been all they expected in his working with teammates, as he is widely credited with spearheading a change in culture that stressed preparing and expecting to win while having fun.

That he did what he did on the field last season didn’t hurt that standing.

“When one of your best players is willing to change and to work and constantly has that will to get better, that wears off on a lot of other players,” associate manager Skip Schumaker said. “That is big. You could see Hosmer trying to make changes.”

– Tribune News Service