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Not since Dexter Fowler was helping the Cubs break their 108-year World Series drought has the team had a steady presence at the top of the lineup. But 21 games into the 2023 season, it appears Nico Hoerner has finally filled that void.
The leadoff man has felt like a major topic of discussion for the Cubs over the last six-plus seasons. With Fowler leaving for St. Louis prior to the 2017 season, a revolving door emerged at the top of former manager Joe Maddon and current skipper David Ross’ lineups. In fact, Rafael Ortega was Ross’ most-used leadoff man in 2022 — at 51 games.
But since Day 1 of this season, Ross has written Hoerner’s name at the top of the order. And that’s not something that appears will change anytime soon.
As the first batter of a game for the Cubs, specifically, Hoerner is hitting .381 (8-for-21) with an .810 OPS. That of course gives his team more chances to score runs early on (though with only 12 first-inning runs scored, No. 19 in the majors, they haven’t always taken advantage). But it isn’t only the first inning where he’s doing his damage.
Overall, Hoerner is hitting .355 with an .873 OPS and a 142 wRC+. Heading into Tuesday (per Baseball Savant), he was second in the majors in total hits (33), strikeout rate (7 percent), whiff rate (8.5 percent) and stolen bases (nine), and he also ranked 21st with a 30.2 percent line-drive rate.
“He’s a really well-rounded player and just coming into his own, and you guys are getting to see that at the top of the lineup,” Ross said. “He’s a tone setter. He’s an energy guy for our group. He has a high IQ, high intelligence on the baseball field that just seems like the start of this engine we got going.”
Everyone knows Hoerner has Gold Glove chops, especially now since he’s moved back to second base. But he’s seemingly doing everything right on the offensive side of the ball. He’s not swinging and missing much, he’s constantly putting the ball in play, he’s constantly hitting them on a line, and when he gets on base, he’s putting pressure on the defense.
“The way he’s played so far is I think the way he wants to play all the time,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “He’s going to be aggressive. He’s going to get his on base through batting average. In a lot of ways, he’s adding to his slugging percentage right now by running so much and getting to second. He’s in scoring position all the time. I think he’s been excellent.”
The power is starting to show up, too. In a four-game span last week, Hoerner recorded a double to go along with his first two home runs of the year, nearly doubling his total extra-base hits (seven) in 2023.
If there’s been one minor flaw in his game, it’s probably his walk rate (6 percent), which is below what team traditionally want from their leadoff hitter. But when you have a player who’s getting on base (.400 OBP) at a career-high clip, it doesn’t seem worth trying to adjust their plate approach until you have to.
“I haven’t hit in the leadoff spot that much in my life, to be honest,” Hoerner said, “but there was no message from Rossy or anyone, like, ‘Now, you got to walk more’ or be something other than you are naturally. I think that’s just kind of allowed me to be myself.”
The stability in the lineup behind him has played a part in his comfortability at the top of the order, too. For the majority of the season, he’s known that Dansby Swanson and Ian Happ were due up right after him. And since Seiya Suzuki returned from the injured list on April 14, he’s been slotted in the No. 4 spot.
The Cubs have a pretty clear batting order that’s emerged, at least in the first half of the lineup. So, knowing his spot in the order and in the field are set on a daily basis, Hoerner has been able to just focus on his routine.
“To truly know the same thing every day is a huge luxury in our game,” Hoerner said. “Ian talked a lot about that last year for him with his first extended stretch of just showing up to the field, he’s playing left field, doing his thing. It really allows you to just take care of your work and go from there. I’m really grateful to have that opportunity.”
Certainly, the fact the Cubs are still only 21 games into the season can’t be discounted. Hoerner has to continue to produce at the top of the order before anyone can truly claim the Cubs have finally found a leadoff hitter.
But Hoerner is proving his breakout 2022 was no fluke. He’s proving the Cubs were right to invest a good chunk of money into him over the next three years. If he can keep this up, there’s hardly any doubt he’ll prove Ross made the right move to make him the leadoff man.
“What a great start he’s gotten off to,” Ross said. “He’s just kind of the tone setter. He’s a phenomenal hitter, he has a lot of confidence in himself, and I think we’ve just really touched the edge of what he can be.”
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