Nico Hoerner Learning to Play Like Water While His Hair’s on Fire
Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.
— Bruce Lee
Exactly how aware the Cubs were of Nico Hoerner‘s malleability is a detail that’ll probably end up being molded over the years by revisionist history. And that may not actually make the story of his scouting any less true, since latent talent is not unlike a sculpture trapped within a block of marble. Lucky for the Cubs, Hoerner appears to be a willing participant when it comes to freeing himself from the block.
More than that, he’s the embodiment of Bruce Lee’s call to be like water. Hoerner is flowing effortlessly between different levels of the organization, implementing advice and information while taking whatever shape the Cubs present to him.
His hot start this spring captured the attention of those fans who hadn’t already been tracking last year’s No. 24 overall pick, but it’s his mentality that has wowed members of the organization. Hoerner’s college coach, David Esquer, raved to the Cubs about his former star’s work ethic and that has been borne out in a player who’s willing to do whatever it takes to make himself and the team better.
“I think it’s a different mentality when you are in pro ball, because it becomes a little bit more of your own career,” Hoerner told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “In college…I knew it wasn’t my highest potential.
“I love college baseball. It’s a lot of fun. But, I knew I had a lot more in the tank and I think transitioning to this kind of baseball has been good for me and my personal development.”
The most noticeable aspect of Hoerner’s early development has been his power, something that didn’t really manifest at Stanford. That’s not the result of some sort of drastic overhaul to his swing, but is simply a natural outgrowth of a few small tweaks — closing his stance, being more aware of driving the ball — he’s been allowed to make largely on his own.
“I know, for me, I am hitting the ball in the air more, but my whole time in college, I was never really trying to hit ground balls,” Hoerner explained. “It’s just what I was doing. When I’m in the box now, it’s still competing and just trying to square the baseball up at the end of the day. But, I think lifting the ball for me is such a hot topic.
“Yes, I would love to hit the ball between 20–30 degrees at 105 every time, but a lot of that’s going to come as much from the swing that you work on, as the approach, and learning and figuring out when and how I can get my best swing off as often as I can on time. And I know, if I do that, if I’m on time to a good pitch to hit, I’m going to drive the ball in the air pretty hard.”
Hoerner says he’s open to all the new metrics of hitting, many of which he wasn’t exposed to prior to joining the professional ranks. He understands that what’s new today will be commonplace, maybe even obsolete, a decade from now, so it’s really just a matter of learning how to apply the numbers to the feel for what he already does well.
Therein lies a common misconception about the recent infatuation with launch angle. The goal is not to generate a specific set of results, but rather to establish a repeatable process through which the desired results are are a natural outcome. Understanding that will allow Hoerner to be better able to internalize and leverage the data he’s being given, and he’s already proven himself as a guy who just seems to get it when it comes to the big picture.
“He’s been spending a lot of time up there,” a Cubs staffer told Emily Waldon of The Athletic. “If you didn’t know him, you’d never be able to tell he doesn’t even have a full year under his belt.”
Now it’s a matter of how quickly he’s able to put everything together to move through the system, though he may first need to learn to slow down. Esquer talked about having to convince Hoerner to not always play like his hair was on fire, and Hoerner has admitted that he’s got to learn how to avoid overworking as he heads into his first full season.
“The work ethic side of it is interesting in Minor League Baseball, because you can work a lot, but that might not be a good work ethic,” Hoerner said. “For me, I haven’t played a full season yet, so I’m kind of inclined to go, go, go. I think, if anything, the Cubs have helped me figure out what that means to work smart and get the most out of my body and my preparation.
“So, I mean, it’s still a bit of a guess on how to get through a first season, because I haven’t done it before. But, I think yeah, the work ethic, working smart instead of working hard necessarily, has been big for me. But, it doesn’t feel like hard work when it’s baseball. Not that it’s easy, it’s just very enjoyable.”
For more on Hoerner, including what he’s been working on during his time in Mesa and how he got to this point in his baseball career, check out Bastian’s full Q&A. I believe I have touting his work before, but it’s worth reminding those of you who don’t religiously read everything I produce.
A lot of the articles you find out there, including the one you just read, feature quotes hand-picked to fit the narrative or because they’ll drive interest. There’s also the matter of space, since you can’t just plop a 10-minute interview into the middle of a post that contains other info. So Bastian uses his Medium platform as a way to augment what he puts out for MLB.com and offer a lot more context to the stories and players he covers.