Nico Hoerner only had 365 minor league plate appearances to his name when he was called up late in the 2019 season. An elbow injury had cut his initial pro campaign short and a fractured wrist held him out for a good portion of ’19, but a series of injuries to the shortstops above him in the system necessitated a fast-track approach. Then came the pandemic, which shortened the 2020 season and expanded rosters, more or less forcing the Cubs’ hand with the 23-year-old.
Hoerner hit .282 and showed off his contact skills over 82 plate appearances during his first stint with the Cubs, then was named a Gold Glove finalist this past season. He’s also versatile, logging time at short and third while also getting a little run in left and center. Using him in center was actually part of the plan heading into the season and you could go so far as to say he profiles as a more athletic Ben Zobrist, but it’s possible that potential will push the Cubs to continue ignoring the need to further develop Hoerner in the minors.
Maybe it’s a little misleading to say they’ve ignored anything to this point, since vice president of player development Matt Dorey was pretty clear back in January that Hoerner probably needed more work on the farm. Had things unfolded in a normal fashion, that’s likely what would have happened.
“He knew that the league didn’t know him, and he wanted to try to get off his ‘A’ swing as soon as he could early in an at-bat as the league was trying to figure him out,” Dorey explained. “Maybe they were trying to steal a strike and he didn’t want to get in a position to try to battle with two strikes. Essentially with literally no upper-level minor league experience, either.
“I think a big part of his development plan moving forward will be his, I don’t want to say his plate discipline, but making better decisions and having the ability and comfort to grind out at-bats with two strikes. I think that’s what we’ll evaluate in spring training and make Nico hyper aware of that.”
But the calculus has changed a little in the time since and the Cubs are now a leaner organization, both in terms of payroll, baseball operations, and minor league affiliates. They may not want to pay for a veteran like Jason Kipnis to platoon with Hoerner and they have other heralded shortstops coming up through a system that no longer has a short-season squad. They may be resigned to the idea that Hoerner will simply have to develop on the fly, which could hurt him in the long run.
He still has fewer than 600 plate appearances as a professional and it’s obvious he’s still trying to find his way as a hitter. The Cubs were initially working with him to develop his nascent power, a strategy that resulted in three home runs each at Double-A and in the majors after hitting two total in three years at Stanford. A lot of that came from being more aggressive, as Dorey laid out above, so the real task was improving his overall approach.
Some of the numbers from 2020 indicate that Hoerner was able to do just that. He walked at a 9.5% clip, well more than double his mark from the previous season, and kept his strikeout rate below 20% while lowering his swinging-strike rate. What’s more, his exit velocity and hard-hit percentage went up in 2020 over 2019. However, his wOBA dropped 40 points to .265 and his 63 wRC+tells us he was 37% worse than the average hitter.
That’s a function of hitting no homers and posting a .037 ISO, the second-lowest mark among 267 players with at least 120 plate appearances. For what it’s worth, Nationals third baseman Carter Kieboom‘s .010 was the worst. Hoerner also hit the ball on the ground 55.3% of the time, worse than all but 14 players.
As you might expect, that is a direct function of a mere 0.8 degree launch angle that was among the five lowest in all of MLB. Hoerner also generated just 0.8 barrels per plate appearance, ninth-worst in the league. Contrast that with the previous season, when his launch angle of 3.9 degrees coincided with 1.8 barrels per PA. While those may seem like minimal differences, and I’ll grant the barrels are almost certainly inconsequential, the expected outcomes from an extra 3 degrees in launch angle are around 100 points higher in both average and wOBA.
Am I saying it’s simply a matter of Hoerner hitting the ball in the air with more frequency? No, but that sure would help. The issue as I see it is that the Cubs had to hurry things along and then decided they were stuck with the decision. It’s like taking a cake out of the oven before it’s done baking and then throwing it in the microwave to finish. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to go with the frozen burrito analogy, which means Hoerner’s still a little icy in the middle.
We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if the glove wasn’t good enough to give the team an excuse to paper over the other issues. You’d think an organization that employs Ian Happ would be a little more judicious with these matters, especially when Happ had accumulated 1,075 minor league PAs and nearly 900 more in the majors before he was demoted to work on his swing.
Ah, but therein lies a connection that could offer a clue to the Cubs’ thought process with Hoerner. The man probably most responsible for Happ’s adjustments was then-minor league hitting coordinator Chris Valaika, who is now the assistant hitting coach in Chicago. Much of their effort involved developing a B-hack for situational hitting, and what did we read about Hoerner above?
This is a very nuanced case in which there’s no set answer, but the Cubs need to be really careful about how they handle Hoerner’s development in 2021 and beyond. Rushing things out of necessity because they like his versatility could end up doing a disservice to player and organization alike.