Nico Hoerner hasn’t gotten off to a great start offensively this season — largely because of an extremely low average launch angle — but his underlying performance is not really as bad as the slash line looks: .216/.237/.405 (80 wRC+)
Before we even get into the numbers, I’d just like to say I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Hoerner at the plate this year. He looks comfortable in the box, he’s hit the ball with authority, and while he’s using all fields enough, he’s also pulling it a bit more than usual (which I consider a good thing for a player looking to unlock a little more power). As the starting shortstop and “second leadoff” man in the batting order, I think Hoerner has looked the part this season, and I hope we continue to see him regularly manning short.
But that’s all throat-clearing. There’s obviously much to be desired here. So why else haven’t we seen the results (outside of the normal admonitions about small sample sizes in the early going)?
Well, the lack of elevation is certainly the main culprit, and we can’t just wave that away. It is a real problem and he’ll have to start elevating more soon, if he wants to be as productive as he can be. But as I was digging in, I noticed some reasons to be optimistic, and I thought it worth noting them here.
Right now, Hoerner has a career-low .241 BABIP, which is WAY below his career-average (.311), and comes despite career-highs in average exit velocity, hardhit%, and barrel rate.
Career: 87.1 MPH
2022: 90.5 MPH this season
Yes, the minuscule 2.3 degree average launch angle neuters a lot of the value here, but all things equal, you wouldn’t expect it to be hurt this much. Even Statcast says his current .216 batting average should actually be all the way up at .274, based on the quality of contact. And while Hoerner has gotten a little extra luck on his expected power so far, the overall product should be about 10 points higher than it has been according to xwOBA. Not enormous, but obviously a difference.
There’s one more reason I think we can expect some positive regression: His production against fastballs. Or lack thereof.
In 2021, Nico Hoerner had a .379 batting average and .471 SLG against fastballs. The expected numbers were lower for both (.313 AVG, .411 SLG), but those are still really strong values. And it’s not hard to envision something earned between his .365 xwOBA and .409 actual wOBA. He has always looked good against fastballs.
This season? We’re WAY off the mark in the early going: .158 batting average, .211 SLG against fastballs. The expected numbers are a bit higher (.217 xBA, .331 xSLG), but still not anywhere close to what he was posting against fastballs last season. So what’s going on? Well, Hoerner has faced some really tough right-handed hurlers this season. In fact, his average fastball velocity faced this year (94.4 MPH) is a full MPH higher than his average FB last season (93.4 MPH), as well as the league average (93.5 MPH). A few more average pitchers in the mix might take care of some of the low-hanging fruit.
There’s also the fact that Hoerner has, for the first time in his career, crushed breaking balls this season. In 2021, Hoerner had a .235 wOBA and .254 xwOBA against breaking balls. This season, he’s at .509 wOBA and .394 xWOBA … he’s slugging .786 against breaking balls and even the expected number is insane: .504 xSLG.
Now, these two things aren’t necessarily unrelated. Maybe he’s sitting back on breaking balls a bit too much and that’s causing him to be late on the heater? But this is the sort of under-the-hood, big league development you look for in a hitter before he turns it on: identify a weakness (breaking balls), make changes to address it (sit back, even at the expense of fastball susceptibility), and make small adjustments until you find the right balance.
The fact that he’s showing that he CAN hit the breaking stuff is just a good sign to me.
So where does that leave us? Nico Hoerner (1) looks good at the plate and is hitting the ball hard, often, and directionally-well for a guy looking to hit for more power. (2) He does need to elevate more, but there’s also been a lot of bad BABIP luck, even despite the poor launch angle. Also, (3) he appears to be (successfully) working on shoring up his weakness against breaking balls, which has made him more susceptible to fastballs. But that’s all part of developing at the big league level, and the (4) atypical dose of faster fastballs than average may have amplified the struggles as he tweaks his approach.
With some regular old regression and a more fine-tuned approach at the plate in-coming, I think Hoerner will be just fine offensively.