Author’s note: This was written prior to the Cubs signing Trey Mancini to a two-year contract. There will be a separate “by the numbers” for Mancini later this week and I’ll address issues like playing time at 1B/DH for Hosmer, Mancini and Cubs prospect Matt Mervis in that piece.
When I was in school I was notorious for procrastinating on projects that I just really didn’t want to do. If I was even remotely interested in an assignment I’d spend hours on it, go above and beyond, and I was usually rewarded with a pretty good grade — oftentimes spending time on the assignment I loved that should have been allocated to the much easier, yet very unappealing, set of 40 (ish) math or chemistry problems I just couldn’t bring myself to care about after the first five. I’ve gotten a lot better at buckling down and doing rote tasks as an adult, but the last few weeks I’ve been bitten by that procrastination bug again as I tried to fire myself up to dive into the numbers behind the Cubs’ decisions to sign Drew Smyly, Tucker Barnhart and Eric Hosmer.
It’s difficult to imagine a less exciting trio of signings. Smyly pretty much by definition doesn’t improve the team because he was on the Cubs (and mostly slightly above average) last year. Barnhart (who I’ll finally get around to writing up soon) can only be described as a giant step backwards from the three-time All Star catcher who is my favorite player. Which leaves Hosmer, who, look, he definitely makes this team better at first base than they were in 2022, but that’s only because he’s ever so slightly above average and the Cubs got -0.6 fWAR from their first basemen last year. Let’s take a closer look at the Cubs new first baseman.
Let’s get the elephant out of the room first. If you are a very online baseball fan you’ve likely absorbed a lot of negativity about Hosmer over the last few years. It’s worth pointing out that most of that negativity stemmed from concerns that the eight-year, $144 million contract he signed with Padres in 2018 was an overpay. Whether it was an overpay or not is basically irrelevant to the Chicago Cubs, who will only be on the hook for $720,000 of the $13 million Hosmer will be paid in 2023.
Hosmer, 33, had a hot April last season then cooled off some, finishing the year in Boston. Cubs are paying him the minimum as the Padres are on the hook for the final 3 years of his contract. First base/DH both an option in Chicago. Has a career .764 OPS.— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) January 4, 2023
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that there are defenses of Hosmer’s contract. Recently on an episode of The Athletic’s “The 3-0 Show” Britt Ghiroli and Eno Sarris suggested that Hosmer’s contract was a necessary first step to demonstrate that the Padres were serious about contending and that deal might have set up their ability to sign Manny Machado to a 10-year $300 million deal the next offseason. It’s a lesson the Cubs front office may need to take to heart as marquee free agents currently demand substantially more than the largest contract in Chicago Cubs history — Jason Heyward’s eight-year, $184 million deal, which the Cubs will pay the final year of in 2023 as Heyward tries to reinvent himself with the Dodgers paying the league minimum.
Speaking of Jason Heyward, there have been a lot of social media jokes about ground balls following this signing, because, well, the comparison is just sitting right there:
Jason Heyward GB% 2016-22: 47.2%— Aldo Soto (@AldoSoto21) January 3, 2023
Eric Hosmer GB% 2016-22: 56.8%
I’m sorry, but no. Lmao
I really wanted to write a piece about how Eric Hosmer has more upside than Jason Heyward for some reason. I spent a few days looking for that reason. What I found instead was this:
Eric HosmerJason Heyward Comparison
|Eric Hosmer||- - -||984||730||8.6%||16.6%||89.6||112.9||3.2||5.8%||43.8%||.309||.269||.389||103||.317||56.0%||25.5%||10.8%||34.4%||38.2%||27.4%|
I ran the numbers for Jason Heyward and Eric Hosmer from 2021 to 2022 to get a meaningful sample to compare — Heyward’s abbreviated 2022 campaign didn’t seem robust enough to draw any conclusions. Let’s start with the good news, Eric Hosmer has gotten better results than Jason Heyward. That 103 wRC+ is three percent better than league average and substantially better than Heyward’s 67 during the same time period. Additionally, there are some reasons to be optimistic that Hosmer can sustain that ever so slightly above-average run production. While Heyward and Hosmer both hit the ball on the ground about as much as each other and hit the ball about as hard as each other, Hosmer pulls the ball substantially less than Heyward. That all fields approach is why he’s been able to generate more hits over the last two seasons, although, it will be interesting to see if the new shift rules equalize that gap a bit. Additionally, Hosmer walks slightly more than Heyward and strikes out about three percent less of the time. These are small difference, but added together they explain why Hosmer can have a 33 percent better chance of creating runs despite similar hard hit and ground ball rates.
But while this comparison is helpful for quelling some of the concerns that Hosmer is just going to ground into a lot of double plays, comparing him to Jason Heyward isn’t the right comparison. Seiya Suzuki will play right field for the 2023 Cubs as long as he is healthy. The real comparison is Hosmer to the other guys the Cubs could have played at 1B, and, well, that comparison is pretty clearly an upgrade as you can see below:
2022 Cubs 1B and Eric Hosmer compared
|Eric Hosmer||- - -||419||88.4||112.9||3.1||5.7%||126||39.7%||8.8%||15.3%||104||.113||.304||.268||.382||.313|
There is a narrative around baseball that at least Hosmer is a good defender. This write up from Michael Baumann at FanGraphs is a typical example of the defense of Hosmer’s glove:
Let’s take those questions in turn. Hosmer has long been a polarizing figure in the baseball world, inspiring great disagreement over how good he actually was. Hosmer’s supporters pointed to his defense, his ability to hit for average, and his winning mentality. His detractors pointed to that lack of power, and the fact that his defense — if it was ever as good as advertised — mattered less at first base than it would have at, say, shortstop or in center field. Hosmer came of sporting maturity about the same time as baseball’s empirical revolution. He could be one of the last players to have a reputation that outweighs the empirics, and therefore be credited with whatever intangibles are necessary to square the circle.
He was a good player, on balance, but maybe not as good as four Gold Gloves or the occasional All-Star selection and down-ballot MVP vote. Or to start over Paul Goldschmidt on Team USA.
Unfortunately almost every metric I can find that compares Hosmer to the 2022 Cubs options at first base shows him as a downgrade:
2022 Cubs 1B and Hosmer Defense
|Eric Hosmer||- - -||1B||856.1||-5||-4.3||-7.9||-2||-8|
Defensive stats have a lot of small sample noise. It’s possible Hosmer is really better than this, but it’s also very possible he’s not. I do not think Cubs fans should delude themselves that Hosmer is here to help defensively at first base.
What can I say? Eric Hosmer is an upgrade at first base offensively compared to the options that the Cubs rolled out in 2022. It’s much more of a mixed bag defensively, despite his four gold gloves. As far as I can tell, Hosmer is in Chicago in case Matt Mervis struggles when he gets his shot at MLB. It is not a particularly exciting signing, but it does improve a position where the Cubs were awful in 2022 by upgrading it to ever slightly above average — just like almost every other move the Cubs made this offseason.