There was a time, not all that long ago, when a slugging first baseman was less a luxury than a requirement for a Major League Baseball team. Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, any club that even gestured in the direction of contending had a guy whose job was to knock 40-plus homers and catch just enough of the shortstop's throws across the diamond. These were large men, square-ish and wide and possessed of serious physical density; they hit baseballs hard and moved slowly. They grew goatees the size of a regulation center fielder's head.
This genre reached its zenith, probably, with Albert Pujols circa 2008, but also included members as varied as Ryan Howard and Jason Giambi, Richie Sexson and Mark Teixeira, all of whom put twists on the basic formula. Teixeira played better defense than the norm, for example; Sexson was very tall; Howard, from the instant he inked his five-year, $125 million extension with the Philadelphia Phillies, was fated to represent the fall of the archetype.
Those days are largely gone. Pujols is pretty bad now; Howard is worse. Teixeira is increasingly one-dimensional when he's not hurt. Miguel Cabrera remains a wonderful hitter in the old idiom, hammering doubles and trudging around the bases, but even his success has a nostalgic tint to it as the aging Detroit Tigers sit in fourth place in their division.
For whatever reasons you like—increased drug testing, a greater emphasis on run prevention, the athleticism of the next generation of players—baseball has gotten lighter and quicker in recent years. That change is most visible at first base. The players who've replaced those old bashers don't instill the old fear, but neither do they play with the old single-mindedness. Maybe nobody in baseball better represents this than Eric Hosmer, the Kansas City Royals' fast, slick-fielding, all-kinds-of-hitting, still-improving star.
The Royals entered their three-game series with the Chicago White Sox over Memorial Day weekend in third place in a bunched American League Central. By the weekend's end, courtesy of a sweep, they had taken sole possession of first. The clarity of the formula belies its bonkers execution; the Royals won all three games in the late innings, most impressively scoring seven runs (no homers) in the middle game's ninth to erase a six-run deficit and walk off.
That series produced enough folklore to go around: recent call-up Brett Eibner had two game-winning hits and a game-tying walk, stalwart catcher Salvador Perez went down with an injury, and backup Drew Butera stepped in and hit like, well, nearly like Salvador Perez and not at all like Drew Butera. But, always, Hosmer was at the middle of things. In the first game of the set, with Kansas City trailing by one run in the seventh, he reached for a slider off the plate and arced it into shallow left, plating two. In the next game, during the ninth-inning crescendo, he got as close as any Royal did to leaving the yard that afternoon, pounding a double into the right-field wall. In the final game, he sliced a double to left in the eighth and came around to score the tying run.
Hosmer's play that weekend was what Royals fans are quickly starting to recognize as characteristic, and characteristically assorted. What he has become is not quite the player that agent Scott Boras imagined when he took on Hosmer as a teenage client out of Florida, or the player the Royals hoped for when they drafted him third overall in 2008. A tall lefty with an uppercutting, ill-intentioned swing, Hosmer had the dimensions and bona fides of someone who could bulk up into the prototypical middle-of-the-order threat. Instead, he's panned out as a kind of baseball handyman, reliable mostly in his ability to surprise.
Consider, for a second, the fun of watching someone like Miguel Cabrera hit. It's still, for my money, one of the most enjoyable things in the game, even if it happens more and more at the wrong end of a four-run loss; the thrill of it comes from its relationship to expectation. The pitcher knows what Cabrera can do, and we know the pitcher knows, and we know he's going to be extra careful because of that knowledge. And so we think, as the count gets to 3-1, that maybe the thing we thought would happen won't happen after all. And then Miggy gets an inside fastball and tips his whole body toward it and sends it 330 feet away with exactly the amount of effort it takes us to pull the tab on a soda can. The sequence leading to the hit seems coy in retrospect—of course it ended the way it did.
Hosmer doesn't inspire that expectation. He is nearly Cabrera's equal as a hitter this year, but his can't match Cabrera's assurance. Early in counts, Hosmer's swing remains long and effort-laden, and when he misses, it ends with him wrenching both hands over his shoulder or swinging the bat around over his head with his right. With two strikes, Hosmer changes his tack, sacrificing power for plate coverage in a trade-off the sluggers of yesteryear never had to make. His hits fill the spectrum: squibbers through the 5.5 hole, choppers up the middle, bullets down the right-field line, loud old-school homers deep to dead center. The fun of watching Hosmer, then, is in both understanding his effectiveness and not being able to predict how it will manifest.
It's not limited to the plate, either. Hosmer has dug in as the class of defensive first basemen, ranging and diving in either direction, and picking errant throws with ease; he's won three well-deserved Gold Gloves. Whatever he does for the rest of his career, he has likely already produced the moment by which he'll be remembered: his sprint for home in the ninth inning of the fifth and final game of last year's World Series, which provoked a wide throw from Lucas Duda, tied things up, and helped send the Royals to their first championship in almost three decades. Thinking back to that moment, it gets difficult to square the fact that Hosmer and Pujols have the same job.
The Royals followed up their series of minor miracles against the White Sox with a run of disappointment in Cleveland the next weekend. Reintroducing Perez to the lineup and trying to find some stability in their starting rotation, they dropped all four of their games against the Indians and fell back in the division race. Injuries to Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas, sustained when they ran into one another while pursuing a pop-up, have started taking a toll. There is the sense that the good fortune the Royals have enjoyed for the past few years is, if not running out, at least wearing a little at the seams. If that turns out to be the case, they will have to try to hold things together like every other team. Hosmer won't hit them 50 bombs, but he will do a whole lot of everything else. That should help.