Nico Hoerner: Baseball player
There’s no need for a fancy headline.
“Baseball player” is how the Cubs often describe Nico Hoerner, and not just because they love Obvious Shirts.
It’s because the 24-year-old can impact the game in so many ways on the field and the team loves his baseball IQ.
Ask a member of the Cubs about Hoerner and watch their face light up. Especially after a huge series against the Nationals in which he made a pair of incredible diving plays behind reliever Andrew Chafin.
The first came in the 8th inning Monday with the bases loaded. Hoerner ranged to shallow right field and robbed Starlin Castro of a hit with a full-length dive and then got to his feet for a perfect throw.
It was déjà vu Thursday afternoon as Hoerner reenacted the same type of play to steal a knock away from Nationals first baseman Josh Bell.
After the inning, Hoerner told David Ross the Cubs may want to rethink the shift because opposing hitters are hitting the ball to right field on Chafin.
“I asked him, ‘how are we gonna put you on a highlight reel if we move you?’” Ross joked. “I’m amazed. That one I thought was by him somehow and just went in his glove. Pretty impressive play. Continues to wow with the glove. He’s just an all-around great baseball player.”
On the play Monday night, Ross said he was glad the camera wasn’t on him because he reacted like a fan in the moment.
“That was one of the better plays I’ve seen in a long time,” the Cubs manager said.
Hoerner’s Cubs teammates also couldn’t contain their joy seeing him come through at a pivotal juncture in Monday’s win.
“I love watching Nico go out there and make plays all over the field and be the young kid that he is,” Kris Bryant said.
“That was a game-saver,” Willson Contreras said. “I love seeing him play second base. He’s a gamer and I hope he’ll be here for a lot more years.”
That’s another phrase often used to describe Hoerner: “gamer.”
From diving all over the infield to playing multiple positions to taking the extra base, Hoerner is always doing the little things that help earn a player the lauded “gamer” label.
Hoerner is normally somewhat quiet and understated but even he let out some emotion after that play Monday night and the Cubs know he expresses himself in his own way.
“It’s a little more like when he does certain stuff — the dirt ball read, getting up, scoring, knowing the impact of the game, he’ll high-five me on the way in the dugout and say some stuff that alludes to this kid is amped and ready to bring it,” Ross said. “Everything he’s doing is in that mentality.
“I know you guys don’t get to see it much and he seems a little even-keeled, which I think he is. But internally, he’s a gamer. He wants to win and he wants to impact this baseball team.”
That defense has been huge for a Cubs team that didn’t get out to the start they envisioned on the run prevention front this season.
To get another glimpse into how the Cubs feel about him, take a look at what his teammates said when he was called back up to the big leagues in late April:
“It was awesome seeing Nico back,” Kyle Hendricks said. “He works so hard.”
“It’s really, really easy to root for Nico Hoerner,” Anthony Rizzo said. “When I knew he was getting called up, I sent him a nice text. Just happy he’s back and hopefully he’s here to stay.”
Contreras even went so far as to lobby for Hoerner to be a key member of the everyday group:
“I think this guy needs to be in the lineup on a daily basis,” Contreras said. “He’s a high-energy guy, he takes good at-bats and he’s always looking for ways to win the game. That’s Nico Hoerner.”
In classic Hoerner fashion, when he was asked how he won over this veteran-laden clubhouse, he deflected all the credit to his teammates for making him feel welcome and comfortable.
Baseball is an incredibly mental game and Hoerner has drawn high praise for his intangibles throughout his career. He was plucked off the couch to make his MLB debut late in 2019 after the minor league season had already ended and sparked the team down the stretch in 20 games.
Last year, he struggled a bit on the offensive end but finished as a finalist for the National League Gold Glove award at second base.
Hoerner has played almost as many MLB games (85) as minor league games (89) in his career and has yet to put on a Triple-A Iowa uniform. But he has an innate and quiet confidence that is necessary to succeed at the highest level.
“I’ve felt very confident in my ability to play at the major league level since I first debuted in 2019,” Hoerner said. “Obviously I did not hit well last year but my long term outlook on myself and my career and my ability to help the Cubs win and play good baseball never changed at all.”
The Cubs agree.
He was not included on the Opening Day roster this year as the everyday second base job was awarded to David Bote. But once Joc Pederson went down, the Cubs called Hoerner up from the alternate site and he’s impacted the game in a huge way ever since (with a short IL stint thrown in there).
Despite appearing in only 16 games, Hoerner ranks 5th on the Cubs with a 0.9 WAR, just behind the core quartet of All-Stars — Kris Bryant (2.0 WAR), Contreras (1.4), Rizzo (1.2), Javy Báez (1.1).
“He’s been outstanding,” Jed Hoyer said. “As far as the decision in spring training, to be candid, I don’t have any regret over that. I think David Bote is a really good player. Giving him a chance to really establish himself and to have that role was the right decision in that moment.
“We couldn’t believe in Nico more. … He’s been exceptional. He’s a lot of fun to watch. I’m glad he’s up here and performing. He has had a really positive impact since he came back.”
Ross has called Hoerner a “spark” in his return over the last month.
Offensively, the 24-year-old has continued where he left off in a successful spring training. After a single and a walk in Thursday’s win, Hoerner is now hitting .345 with a .426 on-base percentage.
He spent all offseason working on adding more power to his swing without sacrificing the high-contact skillset that is so enticing to this Cubs lineup. While he doesn’t have a home run yet this year, he already has more extra-base hits (6) than he had last season (4) in roughly half the at-bats.
He’s been coming through in the clutch, too. Hoerner sports a .538 batting average with runners in scoring position this season (7-for-13) and has a .422 career mark in such situations.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s also the fastest runner on the Cubs roster.
“From an offensive standpoint, he’s always learning,” Ian Happ said. “He’s always asking questions and he’s diligent in his approach, in his work. He understands who he is as a hitter and how he’s going to impact a game. A lot of that is with his legs, so for him getting on base and being able to fly around the bases and help us that way is really awesome.”
The young infielder is under team control for four more seasons after 2021. Regardless of what happens with Rizzo, Bryant and Báez this winter, Hoerner is a huge part of the Cubs’ core moving forward.
As impressive as his play has been on the field, he’s also saying and doing all the right things off it.
“I just think it’s who he is — he’s a ballplayer,” Bryant said. “He doesn’t say too much but he really gets after it in terms of his work and he’s definitely using his age to his advantage.
“At the same time, he’s super smart — he gets it. He’s from Stanford, went to college, he gets the whole being a pro and that’s who Nico is. It’s a pleasure being his teammate.”
Whatever you want to call him — “gamer” or “baseball player” or “pro” — Hoerner continues to win over his Cubs teammates and coaches and he has proven he is here to stay.