Baserunning is becoming a weapon for the Cubs
Nico Hoerner danced off first base, faking a break toward second before quickly retreating to the bag.
That move forced Dodgers pitcher Michael Grove to step off the mound and throw over to first base. Hoerner had already begun his path back to the bag, so the play wasn’t even close.
And in the process, it forced a second disengagement — which is huge in this new world where MLB pitchers are only allowed to disengage from the runner twice during an at-bat.
That allowed Hoerner the flexibility and comfortability to run free and ultimately stole second base a couple pitches later.
That play didn’t lead to a run, but it was a perfect snapshot of how the Cubs are utilizing baserunning as a weapon in 2023.
It also marked Hoerner’s 8th stolen base of the season in the team’s first 13 games — something only one other Cubs player has accomplished since 1906 (Jimmy Slagle in 1907).
Hoerner was caught stealing for the first time this season Sunday when he was picked off first base. But he has been running wild and is on pace for a whopping 92 stolen bases this season. (For reference, the Cubs franchise record is 84 stolen bases by Bill Lange in 1896.) Hoerner’s career high in stolen bases at any level — college, minors or majors — was the 20 bags he swiped last season.
That’s not to say Hoerner will steal 90+ — or even 70 — this season.
But Hoerner and the Cubs have certainly been aggressive on the bases this season and they are taking advantage of the new rules.
For a Cubs team that emphasizes the need to do the little things well, that baserunning will be vital to their success throughout the season.
“Some of the conversations and continuing to pay attention to the details,” David Ross said. “I don’t think we’ve changed anything — there’s times to be more aggressive. … I just like hard baserunning and big leads at times knowing those little things can help you win a game.”
We’ve already seen it pay dividends on the field.
On Friday, even Yan Gomes — he of the 8 career stolen bases in 12 MLB seasons — got into the mix.
He led off the 3rd inning with a single and stole second base as Hoerner struck out. After another strikeout, Gomes ended up coming around to score the Cubs’ 1st run of the game en route to an 8-2 victory.
On Sunday after Hoerner was picked off, the Cubs wound up stealing a pair of bases later in the game. The second one — by Cody Bellinger — led to the game-tying run in the 5th inning. Bellinger eventually came around to score on Luis Torrens’ infield hit and the Cubs won by a run (3-2).
The Cubs entered play Sunday tied for 5th in baseball in FanGraphs’ baserunning metric and tied for 5th with 17 stolen bases.
For comparison, they ranked 17th in the Baserunning metric last season despite finishing 4th in stolen bases (111).
As last season came to a close and the Cubs evaluated where they were as a team, Jed Hoyer’s front office and Ross’ coaching staff came to the same conclusion:
“We have not run the bases well,” Ross said late last year.
“How do I evaluate our baserunning? Not good enough,” Hoyer said at his end-of-season press conference in October.
They both understood the team was pushing the envelope and did so deliberately to try to manufacture offense. But Hoyer and Ross felt like the Cubs made too many outs on the bases and needed to clean up some areas.
It certainly appears as if those areas have been cleaned up. It helps adding players like Dansby Swanson and Bellinger, who have ranked among the game’s best baserunners over the last few years.
“It’s been good,” Hoyer said last week of his team’s baserunning. “I think we’ll continue to explore the rules and push the envelope in different series. There will be series when we run a lot. There will be series where maybe a team takes care of the running game better — they have a better throwing catcher or whatever.
“We have the ability to do that both from a personnel standpoint and also from a coaching staff/attention to detail standpoint. I expect us to do a really good job with that. And it kinda goes with playing clean baseball — taking extra bases, stealing a run here and there is really important to our success.”
Hoerner has been the Cubs’ biggest asset on the bases this season and for him, it’s part of his progression and development as a young player coming into his own in the league.
He also credits the team’s work last season for pushing the envelope and how the Cubs coaching staff has helped.
“I think that work really starts with our staff and Mike Napoli and Rossy giving me some opportunities to go, where to pick your best spots and do it with full conviction and go from there,” Hoerner said. “We had gained some momentum with that last year and then obviously some new rule changes help as well.
“As a group last year, we were really aggressive and made some mistakes along the way, but also learned a lot through that. I think that kinda gave us a headstart on some of the things that are going on this year.”
On the last homestand, the Cubs had already built a big lead on the Rangers during the second game of the series. Ian Happ stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and singled up the middle, driving home a pair of runs.
When Rangers shortstop Corey Seager bobbled the relay throw at second base, Swanson took off from third and slid in safely to push the score to 10-2.
Wrigley Field is electric. ⚡️#NextStartsHere pic.twitter.com/L6CLSyXm5f— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) April 8, 2023
That wasn’t a huge play given the size of the lead and the fact that it came in the bottom of the 8th inning. But it was a good example of how the Cubs are forcing the issue on the basepaths whenever they possibly can.
“There’s definitely days like that [to be conscious about taking an extra base,” Happ said. “It depends who you’re facing and what it looks like. There’s a lot that goes into those decisions.”
Helping the Cubs baserunners make those decisions is first base coach Mike Napoli.
Napoli was never the fastest baserunner, but he was always a very smart player throughout his 12-year MLB career and carries a unique perspective as a former catcher, DH and first baseman who played in 3 World Series throughout his career.
“Nap’s been phenomenal,” Ross said. “Putting him at first base has been just a game-changer in a way of how he relates to players, the things he can see from a catching standpoint, watching the video and the gathering of the information.
“We did a nice job last year in picking up certain areas that we could take advantage of and Nap has continued to learn and I think has a really good way about him.”