As we touched on this morning with respect to Joc Pederson’s return timeline, whatever the plan is for Nico Hoerner, I hope there’s enough flexibility built in that if he should keep impressing over the next week or more, the Cubs can figure out a way to keep getting him starts.
As David Ross put it (Cubs.com): “Every Major Leaguer, especially young Major Leaguers, has to go out and prove that they belong here. I think he’s well on his way to doing that. There’s guys that come up and force your hand sometimes, too, right? Some guys come up and are playing really well, and it’s hard to send them back down.”
To that end, Sahadev Sharma took a great look at what’s different with Hoerner’s approach/swing this year (starting with Spring Training) after seeing how he was attacked last year, and what limitations that exposed.
A look at the slight adjustments Nico Hoerner has made, what they allow him to do better and whether he can force the Cubs hand and stick around for the rest of 2021 and beyond. https://t.co/ev8NBoLHuN
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) April 26, 2021
We talked in Spring Training about some of the more obvious and visible changes, from a much stronger physique to a slightly more opened stance. But it wasn’t as simple as the Cubs dictating a tweak here or there to his diet or his swing mechanics or whatever. Instead, Hoerner’s evolution is an example of how the Cubs are really trying to integrate all aspects of high performance, from the nutrition to the work out to the body shape to the swing (The Athletic):
“As the season evolved, he started closing himself off and was getting pitched a certain way,” assistant hitting coach Chris Valaika said. “He took it upon himself to make those adjustments, give himself some more space. He worked with high performance and we took a holistic approach. It wasn’t just hitting mechanics or drills. It was movement quality, putting on the mass he did while also keeping some flexibility. That’s directly translated to what we were working on in the cage and it’s translated to on the field.” ….
“Those [closed off] body positions [in 2020] directly translate to why the ball was on the ground so much,” Valaika said. “He’s fighting around himself, the bat gets flatter and the results is groundballs and low line drives. With his innate contact ability, we didn’t want to lose any of that. We just wanted to get him space so he could finish his move, his turn so he could let the ball get in the air a little cleaner.”
Incidentally, Valaika was brought in at the very outset of the overhaul in the minor league development structure and focus (he came before the 2018 season, the 2019 season was when most of the changes took place, and he simply worked his way up quickly to the big league level). We didn’t get a chance to see the first wave of results from that overhaul – much of which was this holistic, high performance way of thinking – because there was no minor league season in 2020. Hopefully we’ll see it up and down the farm in 2021 (while appropriately adjusting expectations for the fact that it was probably much easier for pitchers to stay sharp and develop in a lost year than for hitters).
We’ll need much more data – and pitchers making adjustments to his adjustments – before we could conclude anything of substantial utility in terms of Hoerner’s results. And I know Cubs fans have felt burned before pining on the upside associated with taking a natural high-contact bat and tweaking this or that to maximize the power. That said, I like what I’m hearing with respect to Hoerner’s adjustments being self-driven, and managed to create more opportunities for hard contact, rather than massive overhauls in swing and/or approach designed to generate more home run power in the air. You’d love for that to be a byproduct, but it does seem more sage to have the focus be “increase opportunities for quality, hard contact.” And then let Hoerner do the rest.
Read Sharma’s piece for much more on Hoerner’s evolution, the nitty gritty on the changes he’s made, and what could come next for a guy who isn’t supposed to be the “next great hope” for the Cubs – a guy on whom fans can pin ALL expectations – but who could absolutely become a core player for the next six+ years.