The trade deadline is going to suck all of the air out of the Cubs room in just a few days and if you listened to the latest episode of Cuppa Cubbie Blue, you know I’m prepared to be very sad for a while. But for today’s off-day I wanted to take a few minutes to celebrate a player who has really stepped up this year. One who will likely only be dealt if the return is Juan Soto: Nico Hoerner.
I’ll be the first to admit that I was skeptical of Nico’s ability to stick at shortstop. I will also not hesitate to admit I was wrong about that. Nico is currently tied for the league lead in Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop, yes, you read that correctly. Here are the top 20 as of today:
Shortstop DRS Leaders 2022
Nico is not merely a passable MLB shortstop, he’s an exceptional one. If you resort that table by dWAR (I know, I know, not particularly reliable, still interesting) he’s second between Dansby Swanson and Willy Adames. If you sort it by innings played at short, he’s 16th, which honestly makes the DRS total more impressive. The bottom line is, Nico is a solid shortstop.
But he’s also a unique hitter in today’s environment. According to FanGraphs, National League hitters are currently slashing .243/.315/.398 with a wOBA of .313. As a reminder, wRC+ is league and park normed, so that’s at a cool 100. Nico Hoerner on the other hand is slashing .306/.345/.435 with a wOBA of .338 and a wRC+ of 116. That wOBA number is particularly impressive because the knock on Nico was that he was an “empty average” type of bat similar to Nick Madrigal, but it would appear he’s got some pop in there. He’s probably not going to hit 20+ home runs, but he’s currently got 6 and the FanGraphs depth charts rest of season projection has him projected for 4 more. Double digit home runs with an average over .300 will absolutely play. Oh, and he’s getting better. Take a look at these monthly splits:
Hoerner Monthly Splits 2022
As Nico has solidified his role as the Cubs shortstop he’s gotten better at the plate. More playing time? No problem. Nico is raking with increased exposure. He’s still not a Statcast darling, but this screenshot from his page is absolutely better than what all but the most optimistic sabermetricians expected him to do this season:
Nico accomplishes this with a skillset that is not particularly common in MLB. He doesn’t hit for a ton of power (see the hard-hit and barrel metrics above). But even without the hard contact he just hits. The National League strikes out 22.4 percent of the time as of this writing, so making contact with the baseball is at a premium. Take a look at this NL leaderboard for the lowest K percentages among qualified hitters so far in 2022:
National League K% Leaders
All of this is intriguing, but the trajectory is what really interests me. Let’s take one more look at Nico’s progress during his career. To do that I pulled his 15-game rolling wOBA since 2020 at FanGraphs. These graphs are great because they show you the trends and provide a league average baseline for comparison. Nico has clearly kicked it up to another level in 2022:
Also of note, look at his total number of games. It’s easy to forget how young Nico is in this league, he has barely cleared the 162-game threshold over the last three seasons combined. He’s only played 194 games in the majors. He played 98 (yes, 98, I didn’t miss a “1”) games in the minors.
Nico is showing an exceptional level of growth on the most difficult stage in baseball and he’s continued to improve at the plate and in the field. One of the things I’ll be keeping an eye on going forward is whether Nico can continue to thrive as he plays everyday — my money is on yes.