Nico Hoerner: A 2020 Retrospective and 2021 Preview

Nico Hoerner experienced a meteoric rise from surprise 2018 first-round pick (#24 overall) to the first 2018 draftee to make it to the majors a little more than a year later. A 2019 MLB debut was impressive enough, but it was even more extraordinary after Nico played a total of 89 games across four levels from 2018-2019 due to injuries. Hoerner’s debut was must-see baseball in San Diego. His 3 hits, four RBIs, and reliable defense at shortstop showcased everything fans had heard about Nico as a prospect. Hoerner slashed .282/.305/436, displaying a solid hit tool and defense while popping three homers for good measure in a valiant effort to keep the Cubs afloat in the 2019 pennant race.

Needless to say, expectations were high entering 2020, perhaps unfairly so. Hoerner garnered his share of darkhorse NL Rookie of the Year picks. The Cubs offseason brought little serious competition at the second base position. Native son Jason Kipnis provided insurance and a strong role model for Hoerner entering the year, but wasn’t an obvious candidate to start at second throughout the season. What is unclear is if it was ever the Cubs’s intention to have Nico make the opening day roster. It appears the initial plan in spring training was for the Cubs to have Hoerner spend several weeks in Iowa and be promoted when he was ready. Even Nico himself said all the right things about focusing on development rather than making the roster on opening day.

But if you’re reading this from your time in quarantine, you know the 2020 season did not go as planned. On March 12, 2020, Major League Baseball made the decision to cancel the remainder of spring training and delay the 2020 regular season. Players, fans, and organizations were left wondering what would become of the 2020 season if it occurred at all.

It took over 100 days for an announcement of baseball returning. As a byproduct of the pandemic changes, including expanded rosters, alternate sites, and no minor league baseball, it made little sense for Nico Hoerner to bide his time in South Bend. Batting 8th and playing second base, Nico started against the Milwaukee Brewers on Opening Day.

Credit David Ross for navigating the playing time for Hoerner well during the abbreviated 2020 season. From 7/24-8/6, Nico played nearly every game until a .235/.289/.265 slash and .250 wOBA (53 wRC+) forced Ross’s hand. The 23 year old second baseman sat until 8/13 to give Jason Kipnis a chance to demonstrate his best Mickey Morandini impression. Nico’s playing time took a step back, but was a consistent late inning replacement providing exceptional defense (96% percentile in outs above average; 3rd in baseball at 2B). He had a share of excellent hitting performances sprinkled throughout the season, including a 3/4 day against the Tigers on August 26th, but what became startlingly evident was that there was minimal power on display.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Nico’s 2019 debut was the three home runs he belted. He sure didn’t look the part of a scrappy slap hitter when he launched his first career home run into the centerfield bleachers, nor did he when he turned on 98 mph and drove it over the fence a few days later. But if you evaluate each home run separately a trend arises.

Nico Hoerner can hit a fastball. He can smoke a heater. He can wake up at 4 AM (I’d never say 3 AM) and drive 97 mph cheese into the gaps. In 2019 he hit fastballs to a tune of .310/.353/.476 with an xwOBA of .374 and had only a 7.9% whiff%. In 2020, it was down a bit to .230/.281/.279 (likely due defensive positioning, but also due to a change in launch angle – see below), but still had an xwOBA of .341 and only a 7.8% whiff%. On breaking and offspeed pitches, his whiff% climbs to over 34%. Pitchers exploited that weakness, his ISO plummeted to a ghastly .037, and his K% shot up to 19%. When he did hit, they were singles.

Launch angle may also help to represent Hoerner’s decrease in production from 2019 to 2020. Launch angle is a much talked about topic within baseball circles and while it isn’t the end-all-be-all, there are positive correlations between launch angle and offensive production such as xwOBA and ISO (among many others). Take, for example, the previous two statistics xwOBA and ISO. Among all players in 2019, xwOBA and ISO, there was the following association between these metrics and launch angle.

xwOBA compared with launch angle among all major league batted balls in 2019 via Baseball Savant
ISO compared with launch angle among all major league batted balls in 2019 via Baseball Savant

In 2019 Nico Hoerner had a 3.9% average launch angle on batted balls. In 2020 it dropped to 0.8. The histogram below demonstrates some remarkable differences in 10 degree increments between Nico’s 2019 and 2020.

Baseball Savant
Use slider to compare Nico’s 2019 (drag to right) and 2020 (drag to left) launch angle on batted balls

Exploring Nico’s whiff% by zone reveals more insight into his 2020 issues. In 2019, Nico didn’t whiff a single time on balls belt high in the zone, but in 2020, belt high and away (still in strike zone) rose to 12%. His overall whiff% on pitches in the zone increased in the lower strike zones. Pitches low and out of the zone gave Nico even more fits. His Whiff% on down-and-in rose to 44% and down-and-away to 65%.

Baseball Savant
Use slider to compare 2019 (drag to right) and 2020 (drag to left) whiff% in different zones
Picture is oriented so the left hand side represents the right hand batter’s box

2021

His 2020 was a disappointment, but the real question going forward is “what will his 2021 look like?”. There will be some significant hurdles to overcome for Hoerner going forward. But there are serious reasons for optimism of Nico going forward.

  • Contact bat
    Nico’s bat is one that fans have been pining for for years. They now have him in the system and he plays a position of need.
  • Minor swing changes
    Even minor swing changes can unlock substantial improvements in overall offensive value. An improvement from his 0.8 launch angle in 2020 to a comparable 3.9 launch angle could do wonders for his profile.
  • He’s 23
    It was his first “full season”. If you combine his 2019 and 2020 seasons it’s still only 68 games. There’s plenty of time to adjust.
  • Defense
    It was exceptional, which provides him a high floor as a player.
  • It was 2020!
    Even star players around the league with consistent historical recent performances had horrendous years.

You’ll forgive Nico if he has whiplash from the last several years. He’s shot around the Cubs system at breakneck speeds, oftentimes just long enough to have success before hit by an injury or promoted elsewhere. His 2019 provided a hint at his ceiling, and his 2020 demonstrated his floor. His 2021 season will go a long way toward forecasting the future of the Cubs organization at second base.

StatisticNameDefinitionCalculation
xwOBAExpected weighted on base averageFactors in expected outcomes of contact using Statcast data to remove defense from the equationQuality of contact + K + BB
ISOIsolated powerMeasures only extra base hits.SLG-AVG
wRC+Weighted runs created Attempts to quantify total offensive value and extrapolate the data into total runs. It takes park effects into account. 100 wRC+ is average.See specific calculation at Fangraphs
Whiff%Whiff percentageProvides information on swing and miss percentages (whiffs), which are positively correlated to strikeout percentage(Swings and misses) / (swings)
OAAOuts above averageRange based metric that quantifies how many runs were savedSee specific information on MLB