Nico Hoerner, Cubs Leveraging New Rules to Advantage as Offense Surges Leaguewide
The Cubs were more aggressive on the basepaths last season than we’d seen them in many years, so it stood to reason they’d be even more so with the new rules in place for 2023. Through the first five games, however, they’d swiped just three bags and it was looking as though the strategy had shifted in the opposite direction of expectation. In the nine games since, they’ve stolen an MLB-leading 16 bases and now boast the individual league leader in Nico Hoerner.
The second baseman’s six steals in the last nine games stand alone among all players and his eight total are tied with Jorge Mateo and Cedric Mullins of Baltimore at the top. As unlikely as it is that Hoerner will maintain that 93-steal pace, he could eclipse his previous career high of 20 by the end of May.
“I think that work really starts with our staff and Mike Napoli and Rossy giving me some opportunities to go, where to pick your best spots and do it with full conviction and go from there,” Hoerner explained to Marquee’s Tony Andracki. “We had gained some momentum with that last year and then obviously some new rule changes help as well.”
The Cubs’ 111 steals last year were the fourth-most in the majors and their most as a team since they swiped 121 in 2006, and now they’re tracking toward doubling that total. Their overall pace would put them at 220 by season’s end, though they’d be closer to 290 if they keep running like they have in the last nine games. And to think, there are still three teams stealing more than the Cubs.
That’s just part of the overall offensive surge being prompted by larger bases, pitcher disengagement rules, shift limitations, and the pitch clock. And hey, maybe MLB is even monkeying with the baseballs again. Nearly every offensive category is up significantly over last season over the same period, with only triples and caught stealing seeing a downturn.
As you can see in the data below from Codify, steals are up 49% and slugging percentage has jumped by 44% through 222 games. And it’s all happening within a compressed window, which means the action is heightened that much more. I have to imagine Rob Manfred, Theo Epstein, and the rest of the folks at MLBHQ are positively giddy over these developments.
First 222 games of 2023
vs. first 222 games of 2022:
Home runs +30%
Stolen bases +49%
Caught stealing – 10%
Batting average +18 points
On-base percentage +20 points
Slugging percentage +44 points
— Codify (@CodifyBaseball) April 16, 2023
This is very clearly a case of a rising tide lifting all ships, so achieving success is a matter of finding a way to leverage the rules to your advantage. A big part of that for the Cubs was improving the athleticism of the middle infield to counter shift restrictions and upgrading the defense overall to help their contact-heavy pitching. Those changes may be yielding even better results than expected due to the increase in batted balls as seen in the above numbers.
Then you’ve got the steals, not all of which have come from Hoerner. Cody Bellinger and Dansby Swanson were hyped for their defensive prowess and power potential, but they’ve combined for five stolen bases so far and figure to put up totals that approach or exceed their respective previous career marks.
Early though it may be, this is something we thought the Cubs would try to do going back to the offseason and it’s probably safe to say the general theme will continue. Given the way the game got away from stolen bases for a while there, it’d be pretty fun to see Hoerner put up the kind of numbers we haven’t seen in quite some time. The current franchise record of 84 steals was set by Bill Lange 11 years before the Cubs’ first World Series title, so it’s long overdue for a challenge.
Stolen bases add a little more excitement to the game, but more wins are obviously the ultimate goal. Getting both at the same time, well, that’s best of all.