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Duda versus Hosmer — Why is this a comparison?



USA Today Sports

Inexplicably, comparisons between Eric Hosmer and Lucas Duda have lingered since late spring of 2017, with factions insisting that Duda is either Hosmer’s offensive equal or better.

On the surface, it might make sense to compare two different players who play the same position and were pending free agents. That switched into Millennium Falcon hyperdrive when the Kansas City Royals signed Duda to replace Hosmer after Hosmer signed an eight-year, $144 million contract with the San Diego Padres. Were it based solely on Duda ostensibly replacing Hosmer in Kansas City, it might make some semblance of sense. But it’s not and it doesn’t.

Let’s look at why this is a faulty comparison statistically and analytically – a comparison that should not be made at all.

  • What is Hosmer?

Hosmer, 28, was selected third by the Royals in the 2008 amateur draft out of high school in Florida. Reaching the majors at 21, he was a foundational piece of the Royals’ back-to-back pennant winners and World Series win in 2015. He did it not with spectacular, eye-popping numbers, but with a metronomic consistency and baseball sense.

A prime example of what Hosmer does — and what the stats miss — ironically will forever link him and Duda. In Game 5 of the 2015 World Series against the New York Mets, it was Hosmer whose hustling, heads-up sprint to home plate tied the score in the top of the ninth inning on a groundout to third base – a play that players are trained from Little League not to try. Duda’s wild throw home allowed Hosmer to score.

Met fans have forever apportioned blame for losing that game and the series to Duda, manager Terry Collins for leaving starter Matt Harvey in the game, and third baseman David Wright for his weak throwing arm that gave Hosmer the impetus to display his derring-do, but it was Hosmer’s aggressiveness and baseball smarts that sparked the play and allowed the Royals to close out the series.

Baseball speed and running speed are separate entities. Baseball speed is exemplified by that single play when Hosmer’s brain and body were completely in sync. That cannot be quantified by any statistic; it has intrinsic value whether there’s an admission to that reality or not.

The implication that Hosmer should alter his game or somehow apologize for posting solid numbers across the board is a main problem with how the game is analyzed today. A player who hits, hits for power, hits for average, has game speed, and has a championship pedigree should not apologize for his accomplishments, nor should he be criticized because he does not post the stats that are deemed of greater value by factions who believe they are proving an unproveable point.

In addition to his intelligence and leadership, the numbers are there on an annual basis with a career OPS of .781 and an OPS+ of 111. This is a very good player.

  • What is Duda?

Duda was a Met seventh-round draft pick out of USC in 2007. He was a project who had giant physical proportions (6-foot-4, 250 lbs.) more suitable to a linebacker than a first baseman/outfielder. He was behind Ike Davis (drafted in the first round one year later) not just in the pecking order, but on the field as well. Duda wound up wresting the job from Davis and serving as a key ancillary piece to the Mets’ rebuild.

Just as Hosmer should not be downgraded due to current statistical preferences, Duda should similarly not be upgraded for the same basic reasons.

He is not a lumbering slugger of yesteryear who hits home runs, collects walks, and is a liability in every other aspect of the game. The World Series play and a lack of range aside, Duda is a passable first baseman with a good and relatively accurate arm. He’s not fast, but he’s not slow either.

The two attributes he has are the building blocks of what ignited the sabermetric revolution to begin with: home runs and walks. While there has been a predictable fluctuation in his total OPS due to the vagaries of batting average, his on-base percentage will generally be around 100 points above his batting average. With the 30 home runs he will hit if he’s in the regular lineup, he is undoubtedly a productive player.

But is he a key player like Hosmer? Does he do things that will make him useful when he’s not hitting home runs?

The accumulation of numbers is largely how we got here; Duda’s accumulation comes in bunches. It might be an exaggeration to say, “He’ll hit 10 homers in a week and do nothing for three months,” but with Duda, it’s an exaggeration with kernels of truth. In 2015, when he hit 27 home runs for the Mets’ pennant-winning club, 20 of them came from May 21 to May 29, July 25 to August 2, and September 25 to September 29.

In 2017, it was more of the same. Between April 8 and April 14, he hit five home runs. From May 25 through June 2, he hit six home runs and raised his OPS by more than 100 points. From July 16 to July 20, he hit three home runs. After he was traded by the Mets to the Tampa Bay Rays, he hit three homers from July 28 to July 31. That’s 17 of his 30 homers, all within three total weeks.

Duda’s 2016 is not mentioned because he missed a vast chunk of the season with back problems. He had back problems in 2015 as well.

This is who he is. Teams know it. With the back problems, where was he getting a long-term deal when there were similar players like Logan Morrison also on the market? Morrison, off his career year, got $6.5 million for one year with an $8 million option for 2019 from the Minnesota Twins.

So, the numerical equating of Duda as being “better” than Hosmer is based on what?

  • wRC and wRC+

To the uninitiated, the statistical acronyms wRC and wRC+ might sound like something Van Halen (OU812) or Prince (Nothing Compares 2 U) might cleverly come up with as a song title; it might also appear to be a text messaging abbreviation used by an adolescent or a stunted adult.

However, it is a formula (Weighted Runs Created) that is widely used to determine a player’s offensive value. It is also one of the main methods in which Duda is judged to be better than Hosmer. It lays the foundation for the faux outrage and bewilderment that one got $144 million and the other $3.5 million when, based on wRC and wRC+, they should at least have gotten comparable deals.

Again, we’re getting into a total accumulation rather than a slow and steady building of the numbers. Duda, as detailed above, puts up those statistics in bunches. Hosmer posts those numbers with an eerie consistency that is clearly by design. The shorter, compact stroke and accepting home runs when they come with controlled aggressiveness is more conducive to being productive in the long run with limited fluctuations. With that, Hosmer can be trusted to bat at or near the top of the batting order and provide what is expected. Duda will provide what’s expected if the expectations are suitably diminished to accept the burst of home runs, occasional walks, and nothing more.

Comparing two players – or two anything – based on bottom-line statistics without parsing those statistics in a way that contextually gauges them is a mistake. Prejudice and confirmation bias in trying to prove a point will emerge as they have for those who are legitimately nonplussed at the disparity in how baseball has valued these two players.

  • The contracts

Hosmer’s contract is repeatedly mentioned as worth $144 million and is woefully taken out of context. Yes, the contract is worth $144 million, but barring a significant injury or him falling on his face, it’s really a five-year contract worth $105 million. The final three years of the deal – of which Hosmer can and likely will opt out – is worth $13 million annually. He’ll be 33.

It’s $144 million. Except it’s not $144 million. The Padres are getting Hosmer during his prime years for $21 million annually. That’s a good bargain. They are also getting him while he’s motivated to play well for the duration of that contract so he can opt out and get another big contract while he’s still relatively young, or he can get an extension from the Padres if the deal proves fruitful for both sides.

The current financial landscape is such that it’s a buyer’s market — that was evident with Hosmer and Duda. When the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season, Duda will be 37 and will not benefit from the inevitable labor strife. In that negotiation, the players will not be as shortsighted as they were this time. The Hosmers of the world will be in a better place than they are now, since the Major League Baseball Players Association will be hard-pressed to repeat the mistakes it made in worrying about the small stuff (road accommodations) when it should have been worried about the big stuff (how draft pick compensation, tanking, monolithic player assessment, and the luxury tax are holding down salaries).

In a normal year, Duda would have gotten more than $3.5 million. There’s no draft pick compensation attached to him and he’s a known commodity. However, with the market as it is — with teams setting the line on what they’re willing to pay, accompanied by the concerns over draft pick compensation and, more importantly, international bonus money keeping upper-echelon players on the market far longer than they normally would be — it was a perfect storm for a middling player like Duda to get caught in the backdraft and lose money because of it.

  • The decision makers

How is it possible that the amateur blogosphere and random people on Twitter know more about Duda’s value than 30 teams who are all looking at the same numbers and seeking economical production?

Nobody seems to have an answer.

If it were 25 years ago — and the people in power were in an intellectual and philosophical black hole of the grumbling “in my day” Goose Gossage-type, and did not understand nor care to understand the new statistics — astonishment over the lack of interest in Duda might be valid. The outsiders back then who were sharing their information in their own communities and were roundly ignored by the insular world of baseball management are now baseball management.

Stats like wRC and wRC+, among many others, and some that have not even been created yet are formulated by literal rocket scientists and mathematicians. They are in charge of — or have significant say so in — how clubs are run today. They didn’t sign Duda. The Padres have a front office full of numbers guys, including one of the innovators from FanGraphs, Dave Cameron, and they did sign Hosmer to that contract.

Where’s the gap? Coming up with an answer to that question is more beneficial than asking the subsequent questions regarding Duda and Hosmer, questions that should probably not be asked in the first place.

Paul Lebowitz is the author of the novel Breaking Balls and his annual baseball guide. His work has appeared on AllVoices, FanIQ, and his personal site PaulLebowitz.com. He has been linked by Slate, ESPN, Keith Olbermann, Yahoo, and Baseball Think Factory. He lives in New York City.