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The anatomy of a breakout: How Nico Hoerner transformed into one of the Cubs’ most important players

3 weeks agoTony Andracki

Among the several positive developments for the Cubs in 2022, maybe the biggest was Nico Hoerner’s breakout campaign.

He entered the season with several question marks swirling around him.

Could he hold up for an entire season after injuries plagued him early in his career?

Could he not only handle everyday shortstop duties but be an above-average defender?

Could he hit for power?

Hoerner answered all of those questions emphatically.

He played in 135 games with the only IL stint coming in mid-May in a freak accident where he rolled his ankle stepping on an umpire.

He tied for second among all MLB shortstops with 13 Outs Above Average and tied for fourth at the position with 11 Defensive Runs saved.

After 0 homers in 92 games in 2020-21, Hoerner broke that streak quickly with a longball on Opening Day and finished with 10 blasts. He also hit .281 with a 107 OPS+ (7% over league average) and sported the best contact rate (86.6%) in the National League.

Overall, Hoerner paced the Cubs with 4.5 WAR and became a central piece of the team’s core moving forward.

His stellar play earned him the respect and admiration of his teammates.

When Franmil Reyes was asked about his impression of Hoerner after joining the team in August, a smile immediately came to the big slugger’s face as he compared the Cubs shortstop to Cleveland star José Ramírez.

“It’s unbelievable,” Reyes said. “Nico doesn’t have the same power as a hitter like a José Ramírez but the way he plays, how he attacks every pitch, it looks similar. It reminds me a lot of [José] every time he gets on base, how hard he’s running the bases and all of that. He’s an electric player and shows that electricity when he needs to.”

Marcus Stroman joined the Marquee Sports Network broadcast late in the season and while he was on the mic, Hoerner came to the plate and Stroman unleashed a flurry of praise.

“I don’t think he gets enough credit throughout the league. That guy shows up each and every day and puts his absolute best foot forward,” Stroman said. “His preparation’s amazing. No matter if he’s dealing with any bumps and bruises, he’s out there giving 110% each and every day. He grinds out every single at-bat; he’s all over the field making plays. He’s someone that you need on your roster to be elite.”

Hoerner responded by stroking a line drive up the middle for a 2-run hit…and then hustling into second base with a headfirst slide.

That skillset and hustle on the bases has helped elevate Hoerner’s game, too. He stole 20 bases, the most by a Cubs player since 2018 and a number that earned him a spot alongside Ramírez and Trea Turner on a list of well-rounded performances in 2022:

Hoerner put in a lot of time on his baserunning this season, working with Mike Napoli and the rest of the Cubs coaching staff.

David Ross has seen Hoerner’s progression as a basestealer and subsequently gave the young infielder the green light to run more often as the season moved along.

“The lack of hesitation in his game in stealing bases in particular — thinking through things, picking up on cues that you learn as you examine and we watch video,” Ross said. “I think he’s done a really nice job of continuing to try to be as well-rounded of a player as he possibly can and that’s been part of it. He wants to be great in every aspect of the game. I think those are the ones that stand out to me right off the bat.”

And at 25, Hoerner may just be scratching the surface of what he can do.

As the 2022 season wound down, Ross recalled a time in his own career where he felt like he had it all figured out but he doesn’t see Hoerner ever falling into that trap.

“The things I’ve loved about Nico and being around him and his work ethic is just the mentality of [Hoerner thinking he still has room to improve],” Ross said. “Sitting in there in his exit meeting and you talk about, ‘hey nice job,’ and all he has to say is how much better he can be in each area of his game. I think that’s what’s rewarding. Mentally there’s not a break taken. There’s no ‘I’ve made it.’

“…Sometimes the game humbles us in that way of telling us that it never stops to get better and then sometimes the player is just wired that way. I think the rewarding part is just Nico’s wired that way.”

It’s those intangibles that has the Cubs ecstatic about Hoerner’s future.

Beyond his own play and work ethic, Hoerner also stepped up as a leader in 2022 and has the ultimate team-first mentality.

And that could serve him — and the Cubs — well when considering the free agent market this winter. The Cubs’ best chance at adding star power to the lineup is in the shortstop market, as a member of the four-headed monster (Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, Dansby Swanson) could wind up moving Hoerner off the position if one ends up in Chicago.

“We had a great conversation with Nico [at the end of the year]. It’s hard to imagine a young player more focused on the team than Nico,” Jed Hoyer said in his season-ending press conference. “He actually gets mad when you talk about him, which is pretty amazing.

“He wants to talk about the Cubs. He wants to talk about winning. He wants to talk about the culture. So it was pretty easy with him — as long as you’re talking about winning and what can make us great, Nico’s totally on board. He’s an incredible teammate and I’m glad he’s a Cub.”

The Cubs are confident in Hoerner’s ability to stick at shortstop if they don’t land one of the top shortstops on the market. But given he was already a Gold Glove finalist at second base in 2020, adding a star shortstop and moving Hoerner to the other side could give the Cubs arguably the best defensive middle infield in the league.

That’s especially important entering a season with new rules that prohibit shifting, placing more emphasis on athleticism and range among middle infielders.

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