Nico Hoerner and the Question of Readiness in 2020

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Nico Hoerner and the Question of Readiness in 2020

Chicago Cubs

As the season approaches, and with the Cubs’ second base job still a very open question, I’ve been thinking a lot more about where things stand with Nico Hoerner, who is clearly in the mix for an everyday role as soon as this year.

When Nico Hoerner was drafted in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft, it was because of his obvious talent – in the field, at the plate, and as a person. And when he started his first full professional season at AA a year later – an extremely challenging assignment – it was both a welcomed revelation of his status within the minds of those leading the organization, as well as a compliment to his production across two levels during that brief 2018 debut (.327/.450/.571), and a very nice showing in the Arizona Fall League (.337/.362/.506).

Then, the guy went from AA to the big leagues late last season. Meteoric rise.

But with all appropriate love and enthusiasm for Hoerner’s legitimately impressive performance in the minors from 2018-2019 – and his continued trajectory as one of the top prospects in the organization – when he was called up to the big leagues near the end of last season, it was purely out of necessity. Javy Baez had a broken thumb, Addison Russell was entering the concussion protocol, and the Cubs had basically nobody to play shortstop for the final three weeks of the season. It was a really fun moment, and Hoerner provided glimpses of what he could be, but it wasn’t necessarily an indication that the organization believed he was “ready” for a full-time big league role after a half-season at AA where he hit .284/.344/.399 (117 wRC+). That performance gets you stoked about a prospect in his first full pro season, but it doesn’t necessarily scream “this guy has to start immediately in the big leagues.” He came up because there was a need at that moment, and because his uncommon maturity made him able to handle the push.

And as I explored at the time, he came up to the show with less experience than any Cubs prospect in recent memory.

Minor League PAs Before Big League Arrival

1. Kyle Schwarber: 621 PAs
2. Jorge Soler: 622
3. Kris Bryant: 773
4. Ian Happ: 978
5. Addison Russell: 1,087
6. Javy Baez: 1,350
7. Albert Almora Jr.: 1,788
8. Willson Contreras: 2,132

Nico Hoerner … Just 375 Plate Appearances(!)

These other Cubs prospects were *already* among the quickest risers we had ever seen, and Hoerner blew them all out of the water with about half as many professional plate appearances before his big league debut.

Of course, the extremely limited experience was forgotten when he absolutely raked upon arrival.

In his first big league game, Hoerner exploded: 3-5 with a triple, two runs scored, and four RBI. And through his first six games, he did more of the same: slashing .417/.481/.750 (210 wRC+), with two homers and a walk rate (11.1%) higher than his strikeout rate (7.4%). Unsurprisingly, that was enough for many Cubs fans to make up their minds. This guy is the real deal, and will be the starting second baseman opposite Javy Baez in 2020.

Unfortunately, things changed on a dime from there. In his final 14 games, Hoerner slashed .222/.218/.296 (27 wRC+) with exactly zero walks in 55 plate appearances and just two extra base hits. But due to his hot start and the fact that a lot of people stopped paying attention as the Cubs cratered (4-10 over this stretch including a 9-game losing streak), Hoerner’s regression was largely ignored.

So based on his rushed path to the big leagues and the brutal results shortly after his arrival, I’d be comfortable telling you it’s not a lock that he’s ready to start in the big leagues just yet. Eventually? Absolutely. Right now? Not necessarily.

(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

Even beyond that readiness, there are some questions about the things on which Hoerner still needs some work. There is potentially a serious plate approach issue that Cubs fans should be intimately familiar with after following the careers of Starlin Castro and Albert Almora.

Like both of those players, Hoerner is/was a top prospect playing a premium position, with extremely impressive bat-to-ball skills. In fact, his bat-to-ball skills are so good, they’re literally going to be used against him. Bryan discussed a lot of this just after the 2019 season, and it all remains true today …

… Particularly this part: In the last five seasons, here are the highest swinging rates on pitches out of the strike zone, min 80 PA:

1. Pedro Ciriaco (2015): 53.2%
2. Juan Graterol (2017): 52.0%
3. Jorge Alfaro (2019): 50.4%
4. Tomas Nido (2018): 48.9%
5. Kevin Pillar (2019): 48.8%
6. Nico Hoerner (2019): 48.6%
7. Francisco Pena (2018): 48.5%
8. Salvador Perez (2018): 48.4%
9. John Hicks (2019): 48.3%
10. Salvador Perez (2017): 47.9%

As you might imagine, knowing the stories of Castro and Almora, Hoerner’s 74.2% contact rate on pitches out of the zone is well above the league average (62.7%), but that’s the problem. You’re much less likely to be able to do real damage with pitches out of the zone, even if you can hit them.

When Hoerner made contact with those pitches, he slugged just .341 compared to .476 on pitches in the zone. Obviously, that’s not unexpected, but if you’re so much worse on pitches out of the zone, you simply cannot be swinging at as many as he was, even if you’re not whiffing or eventually striking out. You’ll do less damage, AND you’ll see more and more pitches outside the zone.

And guess what? Big league pitchers figured that out pretty quickly:

So forget the results and forget his sprint to the majors, THIS is why Hoerner maybe not yet be ready to face big league pitching every day in games that matter. A book on him came out very quickly, and it was a familiar story for so many players. Worse, a lot of players will fall back on their elite contact skills when they begin to struggle, which ultimately derails their development and lowers their offensive ceiling.

Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not asking that Hoerner turn into a whiffing power machine – the Cubs have plenty of that – and his contact skills are a very nice, complementary skillset to a team that could desperately use some. But he must learn to be more selectively aggressive if he’s going to succeed long-term in the big leagues. Ideally, he’d get that experience against advanced minor league pitching (we’d already prepared ourselves mentally for him to start his season at AAA Iowa).

Hoerner, like Almora and Castro before him, has a really nice overall ceiling. And I’d rather sacrifice however many extra months it’ll take in the minors to get the best version of him in the big leagues. The Cubs cannot afford to make the same mistake they’ve made twice over *especially* because they could really use a good contact bat up-the-middle over the next 5+ years.

What does that mean for Hoerner this year, though? A year where there *isn’t* any minor league pitching available to aid in his development? It’s tough to say. Unfortunately, like so many of his peers, Hoerner is missing out on an absolutely crucial season of development, and he may have to do his best with what he’s got at South Bend, or he may have to try the uncommonly difficult task of developing in real big league games against real big league pitchers. If that’s what the Cubs believe is best for him long-term, then so be it.

But we probably shouldn’t lose all the above context when considering whether it is truly best for him – or best for the 2020 Cubs – to be an everyday starter this year in the big leagues. There are still some very major things that he clearly needs to improve upon, and he’s had almost no professional experience in which to do it in a controlled way. This dang year just really complicates things, and it further blurs that question of when a guy is “ready.”

That is all to say, Hoerner may wind up starting with the Cubs on day one this year. Or he might be a part-timer with the big league club. Or he may wind up heading to South Bend. I can see the merits (and the problems) in each approach. But wherever he winds up, the focus will need to be on his development so that he can eventually be the best version of himself for a long time to come.

Brett Taylor contributed to this post.

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Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami