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  • The Early Returns on Nico Hoerner's Return to Second Base

    Randy Holt

    While my quest to quantify “vibes” is still in effect, I can confirm (from roughly 2,000 miles away) that the vibes on the North Side of Chicago are, in fact, good. Pitching looks good, fielding looks great, and the baserunning has been phenomenal. No matter what phase of this team you’re discussing, though, Nico Hoerner is right in the middle of all of it. 

    Image courtesy of © Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

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    For a team that has languished for the better part of *gestures broadly at the last century* at the leadoff spot, Nico Hoerner has been a bit of a revelation. He’s 97th percentile in K%, fanning less than 10 percent of the time, and 99th in Whiff%. He’s not evincing big power or chqarging up his exit velocities at the top end, but he’s making solid contact at a high rate and proving to be a menace on the basepaths (nine steals already). Hoerner has proven to be something of a throwback out of the leadoff spot, with the high volume of contact, low volume of strikeouts, and consistent movement on the bases.

    But what brings us here today RE: Nico Hoerner is the matter of his defense. 

    The Cubs’ obvious pursuit of a shortstop this past winter was interesting, because the team already had a very good one. He didn’t necessarily profile as the impact bat that any of the four guys available can be, but he’s clearly carved out his own skill set at the plate while providing strong defense–so strong, in fact, that the only full-time player at the six who was stronger in that regard was the one they eventually signed, in Dansby Swanson

    With that signing, we knew the middle of the diamond would be a source of strength for this Cubs team in 2023. Swanson at short, Nico at second, and Cody Bellinger manning center field constitute a top-tier defensive trio. If there was any question about how the Cubs would defend in the most important portion of the field, it was likely going to be Hoerner’s transition, given the lengthier track record of Swanson and Bellinger at their respective positions. 

    Those questions didn’t manifest by any shortcoming of Hoerner, either. The elimination of the shift and likely increased activity on the basepaths make the prospect of a transition for any player on the middle infield a much more complex one at this point. The good news for Hoerner and the Cubs? It should be–and has been–a seamless one. 

    As of this writing, Nico Hoerner has logged 589 innings at the keystone since 2019. He’s about halfway to surpassing his previous high in games started at the position, which was 30 back in 2021. The sample, obviously, is not massive. But within its fielding metric Outs Above Average, Baseball Savant breaks down the field location. Since 2019, this is where Hoerner has stood in each respect:

    Screenshot 2023-04-19 063906.png
    Again, it’s a small sample we’re looking at, but regardless of positioning or where he’s fielding the ball, Hoerner is succeeding. His Success Rate Added–not featured there, but it’s simple math, folks–is on the positive side in each criteria, some to a pretty significant degree. 

    For additional context, each of those figures above is the same or better than Andrés Giménez, who was the second-best 2B by OAA in 2022. And to be fair, with the exception of when he moved to his left, he was in league just about everywhere with top OAA guy Jonathan Schoop, as well. There seems to be little doubt, at least for my money, that he will be in the mix as the top glove guy at the position in 2023. 

    There’s zero question that Nico Hoerner has the athleticism and the lateral quickness to thrive at the spot. It’s just a matter of adjusting his instincts, which to this point have been deployed almost exclusively in a shortstop capacity, to fit. We’ve seen him struggle ever-so-slightly with the throws. That’s perhaps the one extremely minor shortcoming that the eye test has to offer. He has one throwing error this season, which ties his career total for throwing errors at the position. *gasp*

    But the absence of the shift seems to be of little consequence. Not when you’ve got a cerebral player with a shortstop pedigree. The Cubs signed a Gold Glove shortstop and ended up with a Gold Glove second baseman at the same time.

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    Thanks for this. Quick clarification question, can you define what they mean by 'Behind 1B'? That's where the majority of his chances are coming from, and I'm wondering if it's referring to (now presumably illegal) shifts against LHH where he would line up in shallow right.

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    He may even be the favorite for a GG since there are no machinations in place to set the table for another rebuild like 2020. It should be his second!

    Edited by TomtheBombadil
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