In his first Cactus League at-bat on March 5, Nico Hoerner grounded out to lead off the 9th inning of a loss to the Angels. He hasn’t made an out since, going single, single, triple, HBP, walk, home run, HBP, double over his next two starts. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s an .833/.889/1.833 slash with a 2.722 OPS so far.
And if you feel the need to “Well, actually” me about small sample sizes or spring training caveats, I’ll ask you kindly to piss off. Okay, I’ll probably be nicer than that. But I know darn well how this all works and I’m not trying to anoint the kid as the next Mike Trout, though I won’t be surprised at this point if he never makes another out in a live game again.
When the Cubs selected Hoerner at No. 24 in last year’s draft, many wondered why they reached for a kid who wasn’t in the top 50 on most draft boards. He had hit only two home runs in 232 at-bats as a college junior, neither of which came in his last 181 at-bats. But the Cubs saw something in the exit velocity numbers and thought it was just a matter of time before Hoerner’s power manifested naturally.
They also saw a build that belied the paltry power numbers, with corded forearms and sinewy shoulders speaking as loudly as his bat has of late.
“His exit velocity has been really good,” Jed Hoyer told the media of the decision to draft Hoerner. “He hits the ball low at this point and he’s been hitting a lot of line drives. His launch angle isn’t very high. We like the fact that he’s a strong kid. He’s twitchy, he’s got bat speed.
“We talk about it all the time, guys growing into power. That’s not just kids out of high school. That’s also kids in college. And we feel like he is a guy that will probably grow into some power.”
Rather than try to force that power right out of the gate, the Cubs allowed Hoerner the freedom to figure some things out on his own. A quick learner, he launched two homers in his first 49 professional at-bats, the second of which was a no-doubter to deep center in South Bend.
An elbow injury cut Hoerner’s first season short almost immediately after that jack job, but the Cubs felt strongly enough about his potential to place him in the Arizona Fall League. That was a pretty notable assignment, since the only other first-year prospect they’d sent to the AFL was a kid named Kris Bryant.
Hoerner ended up hitting another homer over 89 at-bats against a higher level of pitching than he’d faced in A-ball, slashing .337/.362/.506 with four triples and four doubles. His development was about more than just stats, though, as he made an adjustment to close his stance slightly. The change freed his body up and led to him better channeling that power.
With the foundation set and his first season behind him, the Cubs got to work on adjustments that will help Hoerner make the most out of his physical gifts. Sahadev Sharma wrote about those efforts in January for The Athletic and it certainly appears as though Hoerner has been able to implement the tweaks in short order.
He’s put on a few pounds of “good weight” and Hoerner is learning how to use his hands better in his swing, getting slightly more separation from his body. That allows him to get more leverage and impact the ball more frequently in the air. At instructs, minor league hitting coordinator Chris Valaika worked with Hoerner to focus a little more on contact point.
The idea isn’t about getting the ball in the air, but rather getting Hoerner comfortable pulling the ball. When he does pull the ball and puts it in the air, it’s about making sure he gets that proper spin and true carry, rather than pulling the ball with topspin.
Now, as cool as it is to see Hoerner just destroying Cactus League pitching, don’t go getting your hopes up that he’s somehow going to break camp with the Cubs. Even with an immediate hole at backup shortstop, the kid has to continue working on a few things before he’s ready for the show. And like real work, not in a fake service-time ploy like we saw with Bryant or what’s now happening with Eloy Jimenez or Vlad Guerrero Jr.
What’s entirely possible, however, is that Hoerner skips Myrtle Beach and heads straight to Double-A Tennessee to open the 2019 season. If he does there what he’s done everywhere else so far, a mid-season promotion to Iowa isn’t out of the question. Then you’re talking about the possibility of a September call-up to Chicago, even if it’s just a matter of letting him experience a big-league clubhouse for the first time.
For now, though, let’s just see how big the legend grows down in Mesa if he can string together another few hits.