When the Cubs took infielder Nico Hoerner out of Stanford with the 24th overall pick in the first round of the 2018 draft. it seemed like a typical late first-round pick from a four-year school. Hoerner was a talented shortstop at the college level, but he didn’t have any outstanding “tool” that would project him out to be an impact player at the major league level. In the evaluations of Hoerner published before the draft, the consensus was that Hoerner was a “high-floor” guy who would go somewhere in the late first or early second round. There were questions as to whether shortstop or second base would be his ultimate position. He didn’t have much power, although some evaluations thought he might grow into some and most thought he’d hit a lot of doubles. His speed was good, but no one would call him a speedster. The one thing that everyone praised was his ability to make contact.
If you want to see some pre-draft evaluations, you can check out our summary of Hoerner from draft day last year. Here’s a pre-draft preview from a Dodgers site that has a summary of where Hoerner was ranked by the various online analysts before the draft. ESPN was the highest on him at #35. The site 2080 Baseball had Hoerner at #66. So late-first or second round. The author of that article gave Hoerner a Logan Forsythe comp.
Since then, Hoerner has only played 32 games in the minor leagues and 21 in the Arizona Fall League. Even though that’s a small sample-size, Hoerner has given every indication that those pre-draft evaluations were underestimating him by quite a bit.
I’ve written a lot about Hoerner’s 2018 season, so I’ll just give a quick summary here. After quick stops in Mesa and Eugene, Hoerner was promoted to Low-A South Bend where he only got in four games until he suffered a season-ending elbow injury while attempting a diving catch. He was healthy in time for the Arizona Fall League where he hit .337/.362/.506 in 21 games against competition that was far more experienced that he was.
Hoerner went 8 for 17 with six extra-base hits in major-league Spring Training games and the Cubs felt that Hoerner was advanced enough to assign to Double-A Tennessee. As this article in Baseball America from earlier this month points out, an assignment to Double-A to start a player’s first full professional season is exceedingly rare. Since 2010, only 10 players drafted with a top-40 pick from a four-year college started their next season in Double-A.
Those players were:
Rooker was a Twins first-round pick in 2017. He’s in Triple-A this season. But looking at the eight who have played in the majors, only Colon really failed to pan out. Zunino might not hit as much as his employers would like, but his power and strong defense behind the plate still makes him a valuable major leaguer. The rest of them are at least very good major league ballplayers.
(There might be players taken in later rounds who started their first full season in Double-A, but those are probably all cases of a lower-regarded player being assigned to fill a need at a higher level than the player should really be at.)
Still, being assigned to Double-A means little. If Hoerner was overmatched there, it would just be a sign that the Cubs had made a mistake. Instead, over his first 17 games, Hoerner was hitting .293/.388/.483 with four doubles, one triple and one inside-the-park home run before he was shut down after getting hit in the forearm with a pitch last week. (Hoerner is expected to just miss the minimum seven days on the injured list. The Cubs insist they are just being cautious by placing him on the IL.)
But most importantly to me, he shown the same strong contact skills in Double-A that he did in college. Hoerner has struck out just eight times in 67 plate appearances whereas he’s walked seven times. When you add in the two times he’s been hit by a pitch, he’s reached base on a free pass more often than he’s struck out. If Hoerner’s success in Double-A was just the result of some lucky bounces in a small sample, those plate discipline numbers would look very different.
On top of that, while Hoerner has never been considered slow, he showed some elite speed that we didn’t know he had in his inside-the-park home run. (Video)
Timed it again at 14.69 seconds. Note that Javy’s inside-the-park home run was over 16 seconds, and Byron Buxton has the Statcast record at 14.05. Nico showing elite speed for his FIRST DOUBLE-A HOME RUN.— Cubs Prospects - Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) April 23, 2019
I timed it as well and came up with a similar number. I suspect that Hoerner’s time around the bases comes not from blazing speed like Byron Buxton, but rather good speed combined with extremely efficient baserunning. But in the end, it doesn’t matter how you round the bases so quickly as much as how quickly you did it. His baseball speed is clearly a lot faster than his 40m-dash time.
Hoerner still isn’t showing a lot of power and he generally hits the ball on a line or on the ground a lot more than up in the air. That’s going to limit his upside going forward. But there are many players in recent years who have been able to increase their power by making adjustments to get more loft in their swing. David Bote is just one example, but there are many more prominent examples on other teams.
Southern League pitchers are going to adjust to Hoerner in the coming months, but there is every indication that he’ll be able to adjust right along with them. His strong contact skills demonstrate that he doesn’t get fooled much and there isn’t much he can’t handle at the plate. If Hoerner adds some power, he could be a perennial all-star. Even if he doesn’t, Hoerner could be a valuable everyday player who can play either of the most important positions on the infield.
In their pre-draft writeup, MLB Pipeline compared Hoerner to Ian Kinsler, a comp that most of us dismissed as the typical hype that the official site of Major League Baseball bestows upon all potential draftees. After all, if they really thought Hoerner was going to be the next Ian Kinsler, they would have ranked him a lot higher than the 52nd-best player in the draft.
But while I still think Hoerner is a different type of player than Kinsler, it no longer seems unreasonable to hope that Hoerner has a career as long and as productive a career as Kinsler. In any case, it certainly looks like the Cubs got a steal with the 24th pick of the 2018 draft.