Cubs: What do the numbers tell us about Nico Hoerner this season?
On Friday night at 9:37 pm CT, there was a disturbance in The Force. That was when Cubs infielder Nico Hoerner drew his second walk this season, during a blowout loss to the Brewers. At this rate he’ll reach 100 career walks just before humans successfully colonize Mars.
While Hoerner’s 104 wRC+ is the same as last season, he’s hitting breaking pitches much better particularly the slider. Perhaps because of his lack of power, pitchers continue to attack Hoerner with velo; nearly half the pitches he’s seen this year are four-seamers or sliders. He hasn’t hit offspeed stuff well, but he doesn’t see it much either; as long as pitchers think they can just outgas him, that won’t be a problem.
Thanks mainly to his improvements against the slider, Hoerner has, in fact, provided some power this season even though he yet to leave the yard. His .109 ISO is 13th out of 20 qualifying MLB shortstops, and significantly better than his anemic career rate of .083. This may be a small-sample size illusion, but it isn’t entirely absurd to think he can maintain that production; the Fangraphs Steamer projection thinks he’ll do it, though to be fair, their other projections don’t.
Cubs: Taking a closer look at Nico Hoerner and his defensive metrics
Hoerner continues to play excellent defense. Comparisons to last season are challenging since he played mostly at second then, while this year he has yet to make a start anywhere other than short. That said, this season he’s fourth in Outs Above Average among qualifying shortstops.
That comes with a potential asterisk, though. Of Hoerner’s three OAA, two have come from plays he made in short right as part of an anti-lefty shift. That’s good, but the true star defenders at short harvest their OAA when shaded toward the 5.5 hole (the hole between third and short). The top three defensive shortstops from the beginning of last season through today are Nicky Lopez, Francisco Lindor and Nick Ahmed. Well over half of Lopez and Ahmed’s OAA come from that hole, and nearly half of Lindor’s.
These guys don’t seem to deploy to short right very often; it’s not Hoerner’s fault that he’s shifted more often than the other three. But if he’s going to consistently rank among the top defenders at the position, he may have to make more plays from the 5.5 hole, which are more difficult than most because of the longer throws to first and second. (On the other hand, with outstanding defender Patrick Wisdom at third most days, maybe David Ross doesn’t need to play Hoerner shaded toward third.)
In any case, for now most defensive metrics other than Outs Above Average also like Hoerner at short this year. The Fangraphs defense rating ranks him third among shortstops entering action Sunday, and the two Baseball Reference metrics (Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved) see him as performing about as well at short this season as he did at second last year.
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Hoerner was an excellent middle infield defender last year, and remains so this year, at least thus far. If he can continue his development at the plate, he’ll be well on his way to cementing his role as a key cog in the next Cubs playoff machine.