It’s amazing that, even in the small sample that was Nico Hoerner’s Major League season, we were given such an accurate representation of the skillset his scouting report always suggested. A great contact hitter, a good baserunner with plus speed, some sneaky power, and good defensive instincts.
The numbers will fluctuate and the skills will hopefully further develop, but you got a general sense of the type of player Hoerner could be down the road for the Cubs. And that’s great.
That being said, there was another element to Hoerner’s hit tool that has me nervous. In fact, when combined with some of the natural concerns you have about “contact” bats making the big league transition, it’s something that has made me do an about-face on Hoerner’s Major League readiness entering 2020.
In the last five seasons, here are the highest swinging rates on pitches out of the strike zone, min 80 PA:
- Pedro Ciriaco, 2015, 53.2%
- Juan Graterol, 2017, 52.0%
- Jorge Alfaro, 2019, 50.4%
- Tomas Nido, 2018, 48.9%
- Kevin Pillar, 2019, 48.8%
- Nico Hoerner, 2019, 48.6%
- Francisco Pena, 2018, 48.5%
- Salvador Perez, 2018, 48.4%
- John Hicks, 2019, 48.3%
We knew that Hoerner drew just three walks in his 82 PA’s, and we’ve been talking about the importance of that walk rate to his overall value for a while now. Walks are obviously valuable in their own right, but more importantly, they are frequently the residue of a great overall approach at the plate. So when the walk rate is decent for a guy like Hoerner, you get happy.
But I actually think that O-Swing% up there might tell an even greater story, and, if it’s not improved upon, leaves Hoerner such little margin for error in his offensive approach.
On the one hand, Hoerner’s contact abilities combat his bad tendency to swing at pitcher’s pitches – that is to say, it’s not like he’s up there whiffing. His strikeout rate was fantastic, in large part because his O-Contact% (contact rate on swings outside the zone) of 74.2% was so much better than the league average of 62.7%. However, a pitcher would still be happy to give up that contact every day of the week.
In his Brooks Baseball profile, we can see that Hoerner slugged an anemic .341 on pitches outside of the zone, versus .476 on pitches inside the zone. It’s what you’d expect, in general for most players, but that’s going to be especially true for a guy who has to hunt a bit to generate power, rather than being able to rely on huge, raw, natural power. By reducing his swings at those out-of-zone pitches, Hoerner will have a mix of increasing his walk rate and increasing his success on balls in play.
I couldn’t help but wonder how limiting Hoerner’s type of plate approach would be if it doesn’t change radically. Surely, we see a fair share of free swingers succeed nowadays, but what does the successful chase-happy hitter look like?
Hitters with wRC+ > 110, O-Swing > 42%, 2013-2019 (min 400 PA)
- Javy Baez, 2018, 131 wRC+
- Tim Anderson, 2019, 130 wRC+
- Juan Uribe, 2014, 122 wRC+
- Adam Jones, 2013, 119 wRC+
- Pablo Sandoval, 2013, 117 wRC+
- Corey Dickerson, 2017, 116 wRC+
- Corey Dickerson, 2018, 115 wRC+
- Eddie Rosario, 2018, 114 wRC+
- Javy Baez, 2019, 114 wRC+
- Adam Jones, 2015, 111 wRC+
- Pablo Sandoval, 2014, 110 wRC+
- Marlon Byrd, 2014, 110 wRC+
So in seven years, we have 12 seasons, by just eight hitters, that match the criteria (El Mago: of course). This is a rare thing, and it’s a needle that we’d prefer Nico not try and thread, particularly given the amount of power you otherwise see on that list.
Given the small sample we’re talking about, it’s not some insurmountable ask to get his O-Swing% in the 35-40 range, a healthier zone, which would increase his offensive ceiling. Plate discipline statistics stabilize very quickly – often right there at the 100 PA mark – but we’re talking about a very young player who was pressed into big league duty in his first full professional season. Some development time is to be expected.
When I step back and look at the totality of Hoerner’s season, and I remove myself from the excitement of his debut, there are indeed some developmental hurdles left to clear. Hoerner needs to get more comfortable at whatever his next defensive home may be. He needs to see more pitchers, more types of pitches, and more plans of attack. And, perhaps most of all, he needs learn to be more selective at the pitches he offers at. I’m not doubting that Hoerner can make these adjustments – his feel for the game is among his best skills – I just hope it’s given the proper amount of attention that it demands.
Perhaps it will wind up a very good thing for his development that he had this time in the big leagues so early, saw how pitchers were taking advantage of his contact skills, and now he can have some time in the upper minors to work on it.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.