An injury to Javy Báez unexpectedly launched Nico Hoerner‘s development forward. The 2018 first round pick was slated to go to the Arizona Fall League, but instead he got the call to big leagues this September as the first member of his draft class to debut in the majors. So what can we learn from the young infielder’s 20-game sample in a Cubs uniform?
The first, and perhaps most important, takeaway from a look at the numbers is Hoerner’s elite bat-to-ball skills. The Stanford product struck out in only 13.4% of his 82 plate appearances, more than eight points below league average (21.7%). That’s in keeping with his production at Double A Tennessee, where he struck out in just 10.7% of 294 plate appearances.
Hoerner doesn’t just strike out less than the average hitter, he also makes a lot more overall contact. His overall 81.9% contact rate was nearly six points above league average (76.2%), which is excellent given his relative lack of experience. Not that contact is the be-all, end-all, since Báez only made contact on 66.7% of his hacks and still managed to be a decent performer.
There’s even a point at which too much contact can be a bad thing, which we saw from Kyle Schwarber when he was struggling early in the season. Hoerner made contact with 71.1% of pitches he swung at outside the strike zone, much of which resulted in balls being put in play too weakly. To wit, his average exit velocity was just 85.6 mph (league average is 87.5).
As you might imagine, Hoerner’s hard-hit percentage of just 23.4% lagged well below the 34.5% league average. Laying off pitches outside of the zone more often will improve the quality of his contact significantly and help improve a low .292 batting average on balls in play. That should improve with experience and will boost his on-base skills at the same time.
Hoerner’s 3.7% walk rate is several points below the 8-10% you’d really like to see from him, particularly if he’s going to hit at or near the top of the order. There is reason to believe he has room to grow in that department, since his overall minor league walk rate was well into double digits.
One interesting trend, which admittedly could just be small-sample noise, was an increase in his slugging percentage. His three MLB homers matched the three he hit in 70 Double-A games and his .436 slugging was up from .399 in the Southern League. The juiced balls at the major league level certainly are a factor in the jump, but Hoerner really looked good while facing a much higher level of talent than he’d ever seen before.
When you put it all together, it makes for a very intriguing plate profile. It’s unclear where Hoerner will start next season, although some think he’s the answer to the Cubs’ second base woes. Whenever and wherever he does enter the lineup, Hoerner should help the Cubs with their contact issues.