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Dynamic duo: Cubs' Dansby Swanson, Nico Hoerner are stars up the middle

Jared Wyllys Avatar
August 7, 2023

When Dansby Swanson played travel ball as a kid, his team bus had one small television with a VHS player. They would bring two movies on every trip: “Remember the Titans” and “Superstar Shortstops.”

The latter was Swanson’s contribution. By the time he was playing on travel teams, he had watched it so much that he worried the tape reels were going to wear out. 

“Superstar Shortstops” was released a few months after Swanson’s fifth birthday. He’s not sure how it came to be in his house; it’s possible it belonged to his older brother, Chase. Narrated by 13-time Gold Glove Award winner Ozzie Smith, it is a detailed look at baseball history. Specifically, the history of the shortstop position. Swanson loved watching Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter growing up, and both are featured on that tape, along with past greats like Ernie Banks and Honus Wagner.

You could argue that old VHS tape changed Swanson’s life.

“I watched that video like every day,” he told CHGO. “It just had highlights of all the greatest shortstops who have ever played. I watched it every day, all the time, and that is what really made me want to be like them.”

This begs the chicken-or-the-egg question, but Swanson had already declared himself a shortstop before he watched the tape for the first time.

He gravitated toward that position early, around the same time the tape was released, because he liked knowing that the shortstop was, in many ways, the captain of the defense. Throughout his amateur career, Swanson didn’t stray from that position often. He played second base for most of his sophomore season at Vanderbilt because Vicente Conde was entrenched at short, but otherwise, Swanson was almost always a shortstop during his college and minor league careers. Since debuting with the Braves in 2016, he has played no other position.

When Swanson hit free agency last winter, he was among a crop of sought-after shortstops. The Cubs inked him to a seven-year, $177 million deal a week before Christmas, giving them their shortstop of the long-term future. 

But, of course, the Cubs already had an emerging building block at shortstop.

When Swanson signed, Nico Hoerner was fresh off of a 106 wRC+, 4 fWAR season in 2022. In order for things in the infield to work, Hoerner would have to move to second base full time, a shift that is not as simple as it might look. But the outcome, the Cubs hoped, would be having one of the best middle-infield tandems in baseball.

Now more than two-thirds of the way through their first season together, it looks like the gamble is paying off. 

“It’s huge. It’s hard to put into words, honestly, but I truly think they’re the best in the league,” Marcus Stroman told CHGO. “With their range, their ability to convert ground balls, turn double plays. You don’t see that much, you know?

“It gives me more confidence to attack the zone aggressively myself, because I feel like if it’s hit on the ground, they’re going to convert that out.”

Jul 25, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner (2) and shortstop Dansby Swanson (7) celebrate after defeating the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Hoerner has played plenty of second base, but it has not been his primary position until this year.

Like Swanson, he always thought of himself as a shortstop. He grew up watching shortstops like Troy Tulowitzki and Miguel Tejada. In his years at Stanford, in the minors, and since his 2019 callup to the Cubs, Hoerner has played almost 1,000 more innings at shortstop than second. The last time Hoerner was a full-time second baseman for a whole season was his freshman year at Stanford (excluding the pandemic shortened 2020 season). He does not lack experience at second, but switching between the two positions is not as simple a transition as Hoerner has made it appear.

Despite being two positions very close to each other on the field, playing one or the other can feel a lot different and require skill sets that don’t necessarily overlap. One of the primary issues for a second baseman is his angle towards first base. A shortstop can charge a ground ball on the run and keep moving toward first to make the throw. Many times, a second baseman is making a play almost with his back to first base. 

“You assume it’s as easy as just catch it and throw it, but it’s just not,” Swanson said. “The best analogy I can give is, if you’re a guy who plays out on the wing for a basketball team, it’s like, ‘Hey, I want you to go play on the block with your back to the basket. I want you to be the guy who plays with your back to the basket.’ And it’s like, ‘What do you mean you can’t just have that feel for playing with your back to the basket? What do you mean you can’t see that guy coming to double team?’ It’s the same kind of thought process for me.”

There are other differences. The biggest is the direction a player moves, but even fielding a grounder won’t always feel the same. At shortstop, a ground ball will often head to the back hand side, but for a second baseman, it’s the opposite. 

Again, it’s not as though Hoerner hadn’t played plenty of second base in his career. That is part of why the Cubs signing Swanson made sense in the first place. Hoerner is not truly learning a new position so much as adjusting to dealing with its quirks on a daily basis.

“I feel like I am at a level where I can play it well,” Hoerner told CHGO. “But there are a lot of outs I feel like I’ve left on the field, just plays here and there. Whether it’s tags or double plays.”

Hoerner said he can still feel like the ball is playing him at times, and like the shorter throw from second base can make him feel a little flat-footed. But he said taking the aggressiveness and athleticism from shortstop has helped him grow more comfortable at second. One of his biggest strengths is playing the game on the run, Hoerner said, so having a shortstop mentality at second base is working.

And Hoerner might be a little too hard on himself. He ranks behind only Swanson on the team in total defensive runs saved, and he is tied for third in the National League among second basemen with six.

Hoerner and Swanson have been a boon to the whole team. The Cubs rank fourth in baseball with 28 defensive runs saved (last year, they were 21st in the league with just four). This season, Swanson and Hoerner account for 20 of the 28 DRS the Cubs have as a team. 

May 30, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner (2), left, high-fives shortstop Dansby Swanson (7) after hitting a home run against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Stroman joked about how much more effective his sinker would be this season during spring training, in anticipation of how many ground balls Swanson and Hoerner would gobble up. The Cubs’ starting staff pitches to a lot of contact, and having those two up the middle allows them to pitch to their strengths more easily and with more confidence. 

“There’s times when I look back, and I’m like, ‘These guys are sick,’ and I’m just like, ‘Here’s a sinker. If you put it into play, there’s a high probability that’s going to be converted to an out,’” Stroman said.

Kyle Hendricks has built a sterling career on pitching to soft contact. Having Swanson and Hoerner behind him has allowed Hendricks to do that even more. His groundball rate is up to 46 percent this season, the highest it has been since 2020, and Hendricks is getting more soft and medium contact than he has in a few years.

Some of the difference in Hendricks this season is because his shoulder is healthy again, but even he will credit the difference Swanson and Hoerner have made. Knowing those two are behind him reiterates that pitching to get weak contact is the only bullet he needs to have. 

“You just keep it simple and create the soft contact,” Hendricks told CHGO. “When you’re doing that, and balls are getting through or finding holes, it makes you want to get off of that gameplan, but it kind of feeds into itself. The more soft contact we get, the more plays get made. It makes us just want to keep doing what we’re doing. 

“It keeps us in our gameplan as opposed to feeling like we have to do more or do all these other things that might get us out, and now we’re not pitching as well as we should be because we’re not being ourselves.”

There are the intangibles, too. The Cubs’ season has turned a corner since early June. They have climbed their way back into the NL Central and NL Wild Card races, and Ross has often given credit to the professional, veteran attitudes in his clubhouse. There is a lot of collective experience in that locker room, and Swanson (eight season) and Hoerner (fifth season) make up a decent share of it. 

When Swanson was out with a left heel injury last month, Ross and the players all said he acted like an extra coach. Ross said Swanson’s ability to see and read an infield would make him a good third-base coach some day.

And Ross has said that he wishes he could have been teammates with Hoerner in order to have more opportunities to talk baseball with him. Hoerner will frequently find Ross in the dugout during games to talk strategy, he said.

Defensively and at the plate, there aren’t many up-the-middle duos better than these two. Signing a veteran shortstop to a long-term contract when there was already a good one on the roster asked a lot of both players, especially Hoerner. But the results are there.

Swanson never did end up wearing out his VHS copy of “Superstar Shortstops” like he feared. At some point — he doesn’t remember when — his mother copied it onto a USB drive just in case.

As these things go, both the tape and USB drive are gone, lost in the shuffle of life. But for about $40, you can buy a VHS copy online. It’s also been uploaded in full on YouTube

Swanson watches the YouTube version these days. Earlier this season, he shared the link with assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington to show to his son. Swanson is passionate about his position and the chance to share its legacy.

“I always took a lot of pride in it, even when I was real little, like 5 or 6, just because the leader of the team is always going to be play shortstop,” he said. “The captain of the team is the shortstop, and for whatever reason, I just always loved that part of the position.”

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