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ST. LOUIS — Is there more pop in Nico Hoerner’s bat than usual these days?
You wouldn’t know it looking at some of his box scores, even when considering the go-ahead and eventual game-winning two-run homer in the top of the second on Friday. That was only his fourth home run of the season, which marks a career-high for a player who’s been up with the Cubs for parts of four different seasons now. Over a full, 162-game slate, he can maybe approach double digits for his home run total.
But a power hitter is not what Hoerner has ever been, nor will he likely ever be. He’d never hit more than three at any level prior to this season. In college, he homered just three times over three years. Hoerner doesn’t have the makeup of a power hitter, and his home run total and his now .413 slugging percentage show.
So what does it mean to say he has more pop in his bat? Well, you have to take a look at the Statcast data to really understand.
Back on June 14, Hoerner went 1-for-4 in his four plate appearances against the Padres. Two of the balls Hoerner put in play had exit velocities of 103-plus mph, with one of those being a sharp liner to right field that ended in a triple. Despite that day’s loss, Ross perked up when asked about Hoerner’s seemingly increasing ability to put solid contact on the ball.
“It’s not even just today. I thought Nico has swung the bat really well all year,” Ross said. “Even his outs feel like they’re hard-hit line drives. He’s got to be leading our team in hard-hit line drives. It feels like when he does get out, it’s a bullet line drive to second or short or center or right.”
Ross didn’t have a completely accurate assessment, but he also wasn’t far off.
Coming into Saturday, Hoerner had 17 hard-hit line drives on the season, which ranked fifth on the roster but wasn’t far behind the likes of Frank Schwindel (22) and Ian Happ (20). And then, on cue, Hoerner added two more liners during the Cubs’ 5-3 loss to the Cardinals.
“I think you see him firing at better pitches day in and day out,” hitting coach Greg Brown said. “He understands his at-bats. He’s really executing his approach and plan prior to the at-bat, and then goes in there and the process of evaluating the at-bat based on (asking) ‘Did I execute my plan?’ You see him squaring balls up. He’s using the whole field. I think he’s firing great on breaking balls. Obviously, he clipped one last night, but I think he’s just maturing as a hitter and understanding what his strengths are and how to apply it in a game.”
The thing is, he isn’t even hitting more line drives than normal.
After Saturday, his line drive rate sits at 22.6% (per FanGraphs). That’s tied with the mark he put up last season, and both fall below the 25% mark he had in 2019. What’s really changed in his numbers is his exit velocities and his launch angles. Heading into Saturday, Hoerner was averaging 88.6 mph for his exit velocity, and his average launch angle was 9.6 degrees.
Ross mentioned Hoerner’s flat bat plane as one of the contributors to the rise in those numbers, but that doesn’t explain everything. So what is Hoerner’s secret?
“I don’t think it’s pointing to any one thing in particular,” he said. “I do think playing every day and seeing some pitchers twice and, obviously, the behind-the-scenes work, it all factors together.”
That part about getting consistent playing time every day might actually be one of the biggest keys of all. Not that he wasn’t getting time before, but it’s only been this year that he’s been moved into an everyday spot on the field and been able to focus on excelling at one position. That consistency could certainly pay dividends when it comes to Hoerner’s preparation on the other side of the ball, and as far as the stats go, that looks to be the case.
The rise in hard-hit (95 mph or great exit velocity) rate has been especially impressive. With two more hard-hit balls on Saturday, Hoerner’s hard-hit percentage is up to 36.9% on the season. Narrow it down to just this road trip, and eight of the 21 balls he’s put in play have been hard hit — good enough for a 38.1% hard-hit rate — with three others registering 94.9 mph exit velocities.
If there’s any concern, it’s that the Cubs don’t want Hoerner to add power while sacrificing what’s made him a good hitter in his career. An excellent contact hitter, Hoerner has thus far not fallen below 81.9% contact rate in his career, and he’s now up to 87% in 2022, which ranks 11th among big league hitters with at least 200 plate appearances.
He also hardly every strikes out or even really swings and misses. His 9.7 percent strikeout percentage and his 6.3% swinging strike percentage are both the best marks of his career, and they rank fourth and 16th, respectively, in that same group of hitters across the majors.
That’s certainly not anything the Cubs want to see change, and it’s looking like that’ll still be a big part of his game, regardless of the situation when he comes to the plate.
“I think the whole idea would be, at a core, he consistently squares baseballs up, right?” Brown said. “I think that the idea is more, as he matures and grows, he learns when to leverage and how to create better ball flight in different situations. A lot of it becomes game state. So, if he’s got a runner on third base and he needs to get the RBI, he understands what he needs to approach there, and if there’s two outs late in the game and we need to get an extra-base hit, he can understand how to apply slug, too.”
Hoerner has been one of the most consistent presences in the Cubs lineup, even with that two-week setback because of an ankle injury suffered during a collision with an umpire. He’s currently hitting .291, and his .318 expected batting average is in the top 4% of the league.
Regardless of the talk that’ll inevitably come during this coming offseason’s crop of free agents, Hoerner has surely been showcasing the fact that he could very well be a part of the “Next Great Cubs Team.”
“We talk a lot about young guys and players, how we want them to be, who we think they should be right away,” Ross said. “I think Nico continues to mature into the major leaguer that we all thought he was and is.”
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