PHILADELPHIA — The Kansas City Royals won two straight American League pennants and captured the 2015 World Series behind a batting order whose motto was “keep the line moving.”
The narrative went a lot more smoothly when the line wasn’t frayed in so many places. Three months into the season, the Royals rank 14th in the American League in runs, and manager Ned Yost’s lineup cards are a monument to improvisation. Mike Moustakas is out for the year with a torn knee ligament. Alex Gordon just returned from the disabled list. Lorenzo Cain just went on the disabled list. Kendrys Morales looked downright somnambulant in April and May before hitting .402 in June, and Alcides Escobar‘s penchant for swinging at everything isn’t quite as endearing as it was in the 2015 postseason.
Given the circumstances, Eric Hosmer picked an optimal time to raise his game to the next level. Through Friday’s 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, Hosmer leads Kansas City in batting average (.304), hits (93), runs (43), doubles (18), total bases (149), walks (29) and OPS. (.851), and he’s tied for second on the team in home runs with 12. He even has a two-homer game against Chris Sale, a distinction that should qualify him for some kind of award.
Hosmer held a lead of about 600,000 votes over Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in the latest round of American League All-Star balloting, and he appears to be a lock to represent the Royals on July 12 at Petco Park in San Diego. Along with Salvador Perez and Cain, he has been one of the few constants for a Kansas City team that’s trying to maintain contact with the magma-hot Cleveland Indians in the AL Central.
Franchise icon George Brett consistently raved about Hosmer’s skill set years ago, so the events of this season haven’t come as a great surprise to the Royals. At 26, Hosmer is at the stage of his career where his accrued knowledge is catching up to his natural gifts.
“He’s got a better game plan,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Every time he steps up to the batter’s box, you see him adjusting to situations. His experience and success have allowed him to understand the art of hitting and be better prepared.”
Hosmer is doing lots of damage while seeing fastballs a mere 50.4 percent of the time (through Friday) — the 11th lowest ratio of any hitter in the majors. That’s understandable given his gaudy numbers against hard stuff on both the inner and outer halves of the plate.
Hosmer’s success is less a product of mechanical adjustments than an ability to think along with pitchers in given situations. He has made major advances through watching video, studying scouting reports and engaging in a running give-and-take with Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum.
“The numbers don’t lie,” Hosmer said. “You learn if a guy likes to throw an 0-1 fastball, or if he likes to throw it as soon as he gets behind in the count. You kind of adjust to who’s on the mound and have a game plan each and every day. When I was younger and I came up, it was kind of ‘see ball, hit ball.’ Nowadays, especially with the bullpens that teams have, it’s too hard to go up there and do that.
“Sometimes it’s about taking chances and not being afraid to strike out. We played Boston, and I saw [David Ortiz] swing at a curveball that went 55 feet. When you see a guy like him do that, you realize you have to go up there with that game plan and try and take chances. You can’t be afraid to look stupid on pitches.”
It’s worth remembering that Hosmer logged only 1,016 at-bats in the minor leagues after signing with Kansas City out of high school as the No. 3 pick in the 2008 first-year player draft. Eight years later, Hosmer and San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey are clearly the crown jewels of that draft.
This season, Kansas City’s injury issues have created an opportunity for infielders Whit Merrifield and Cheslor Cuthbert, players who weren’t necessarily in the mix during spring training. While Merrifield (a .315 batting average) and Cuthbert (.274 with seven homers) have responded admirably, they’ve had the luxury of breaking in with a fraction of the scrutiny that Hosmer and Moustakas encountered as perceived franchise saviors a few years ago.
“It’s a little bit tougher when guys have no track record,” Yost said. “Would you rather have your core group of guys? Yeah, absolutely. But sitting in this seat, it’s about managing change and doing your best to find players who can cover for you. It’s important to keep as much stress as you can off them and have an atmosphere where they can thrive. Our players do a great job of staying loose every day.”
Not that the Royals are satisfied with the current state of affairs, by any means. They’re last in the majors with 180 walks and 27th overall with 72 home runs, and their mediocre production with runners in scoring position continues to be an issue. But when the team’s best player stands in the middle of the clubhouse and insists that good things are on the horizon, how can they not believe?
“Listen,” Hosmer said. “We’ve been to the World Series the last two years. We’re not a joke. We’re confident in what we do and we know we’re gonna break out of it. A lot of people don’t like to give us the credit, but we know how good a team we are.”
Every day, in the field and at the plate, Hosmer continues to do his part for the cause. With a little luck and some better health, the Royals could have a run in them yet.