Kyle Hendricks Offers Surprising Model for Nico Hoerner’s Development Path

When the Cubs acquired Kyle Hendricks in 2012, he didn’t fit Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer’s preferred model for power pitching. More typical was trading Scott Feldman for hard throwers Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. And Paul Maholm for hurlers Jaye Chapman and surgically recovering Arodys Vizcaino. And Matt Garza for Neil Ramirez and Carl Edwards Jr.

So when trying to move Ryan Dempster in his final contract year, the Cubs first targeted Atlanta’s hard-throwing 22-year-old Randall Delgado. After Dempster nixed that deal, the Cubs next tried but failed for a package from Los Angeles featuring high-K Double-A starter Allen Webster. (Yes, the same one they recently re-signed to a minor league pact.)

In the end, the Cubs settled for two Single-A prospects from Texas. Neither were ranked in the top 100, and observers considered third baseman Christian Villanueva the better bet of the two. In terms of Hendricks, conventional wisdom said he lacked the kind of swing-and-miss power stuff to stick in a major league rotation.

I’m reminded of this by how most coverage of Nico Hoerner, the Cubs’ top pick in the 2018 draft, focuses on whether he will develop home run power. A speedy, low-strikeout singles-and-doubles machine while at Stanford, Hoerner clubbed just three homers in three collegiate seaons. But once the Cubs drafted him 24th overall, the hope for untapped power sprang up immediately.

Even this week in Sahadev Sharma’s well-reported piece for The Athletic ($), the focus was on Hoerner’s hidden power potential. Sharma chronicled how the Cubs’ scouts and front office fell in love with Hoerner’s exit velocities and work ethic. They also appear to have caught nearly every one of his rare homers in college and the Cape Cod summer league.

It’s worth noting the Cubs also drafted Albert Almora Jr. with the same hopes. Picked sixth overall in 2012, Almora was a lanky still maturing 18-year-old with more chance to naturally fill out and develop power than a 21-year-old college shortstop like Hoerner. That power never materialized with Almora, but now many hope a change in Hoerner’s launch angle might transform him into Epstein/Hoyer’s ideal high-OPS hitter.

Of course, changing a hitter’s swing to allow him to lift every pitch can lead to much higher strikeout rates. But how many homers are naturally in Hoerner’s hitting DNA? Are the Cubs fine if he develops into another 17-homer, 136-strikeout middle infielder like Zack Short last year at Double-A Tennessee? Or is adding power somewhat from scratch not worth the risk of meddling with an advanced college bat?

Hoerner’s arm projects him more naturally as a second baseman, a position where the gold standards over the past 40 years did not come up as power hitters. Players like Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio, Dustin Pedroia, and Jose Altuve largely developed power later in their careers, but none averaged more than 20 homers per season. Even so, all are/were silver-slugging forces in their own way.

So what compels so many dreams of Nico Hoerner slugging more like Bob Horner? It’s this obsession with power that returns me to Kyle Hendricks. In 2013, Hendricks pitched his first full season in the Cubs system and just kept trucking with his low velocity stuff. Across Double- and Triple-A, he posted a terrific 2.00 ERA against a 1.058 WHIP. For this, he earned Cubs’ minor league pitcher of the year honors.

Still, the lack of power in his arm and low K/9 rate (6.9 in 2013) squelched much general enthusiasm for his future, and he didn’t rank on any major top 100 lists. So whether pressured by the Cubs or the outside criticism, he started 2014 at Iowa determined uncharacteristically to add power and increase his velocity and strikeout rates.

In this he was partially successful. He managed to jack his K/9 rate up to 8.5. However, his ERA leaped to 3.56 and his WHIP soared to a career-high 1.179. But when the Cubs called him up in July 2014, he smartly ditched this power experiment and returned to his previous lower-velocity, pitch-to-weak-contact form. In 13 major league starts that rookie season, he posted a mere 5.3 K/9 rate against a superlative 1.083 WHIP and 2.46 ERA.

Hendricks has since averaged 7.9 K/9, but the lesson with special players is the same: Pushing too hard for power development where little previously existed can risk losing what makes the player special in the first place.

Is Hoerner a special player? If so, is he in a Jeff Kent mold or more of a Whit Merrifield or even Pedroia? Of course, this assumes Hoerner makes the majors, which historically is a two in three possibility for his draft slot. And he could get the call only to end up more of a Mike Fontenot type, who was drafted 19th overall in 2001. Only time will tell.

One positive is the Cubs traditionally do not force changes on prospects immediately after drafting them. The organization believes the best teacher is often failure, which creates the receptivity needed to help a previously successful player attempt new approaches.

Hoerner has yet to fail in his young 35-game professional career, though he also hasn’t shown much power either. But according to The Athletic, the Cubs and minor league hitting coach Chris Valaika are working with Hoerner to improve his contact point. By itself, this can help any player maximize all natural pop in their swing. Fortunately, this doesn’t involve a full-on retooling of his swing to jack up his launch angle.

So here’s hoping the Cubs let the kid be himself and develop in a way and at a rate appropriate to his tool set. After all, even if Hoerner only reaches the majors as a high-speed, table-setting contact hitter, that would hardly be the end of the world for a Cubs lineup hungry for all three qualities. Plus it does not exclude higher home run totals to come later.

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