Hoerner on board with leadoff duty: 'All for it'
PEORIA, Ariz. -- It has been seven years since the Cubs have had a regular leadoff hitter. Nico Hoerner might be the one to end that drought.
Hoerner has batted leadoff in all four games he has played this spring, the result of a plan manager David Ross had coming into camp.
“I think when I look at Nico, it's about setting a tone for our group to start a game,” Ross said. “He's as ready to go as anybody I've ever been around. Something about the way he plays, I think, sets a great tone for our team. So I like him starting things off.”
Ross informed Hoerner of his idea prior to Spring Training. While the manager isn’t ready to anoint the second baseman as his everyday No. 1 hitter for the regular season, it seems as though it’s Hoerner’s job to lose.
Hoerner has hit first only three times in the first four years of his MLB career, doing so once in 2020 and twice in 2021. It’s a small sample size, for sure, but he posted a .385 on-base percentage in those games, giving the Cubs a glimpse of what he might be able to do.
“I haven't done it a lot at the big league level,” Hoerner said. “I've done it here and there growing up in college and summer ball and things like that. I’ve probably hit second most in my life, but leadoff feels good. It’s an exciting opportunity.”
Since 2016, when Dexter Fowler led off 118 times, the Cubs haven’t had the same player lead off more than 56 times in a season, making the top spot in the lineup a revolving door. Last year, the Cubs started 10 players in the leadoff spot, the fourth time in six seasons since Fowler left that they have utilized 10 or more players in that position.
“I know the Cubs haven't really had a stable spot in that lineup in a while,” Hoerner said. “The message has just been not to change much. I think there are some things here and there, but for the most part, just continuing to focus on my strengths.”
Hoerner has a .333 career on-base percentage, with a career high of .382 in 2021. Last year, he ranked in the 98th percentile in strikeout percentage, the 97th percentile in whiff percentage and the 92nd percentile in sprint speed, presenting a good mix of contact and speed that can make a leadoff hitter successful.
On the other side, Hoerner drew only 28 walks in 517 plate appearances last season, his 5.4% walk rate falling dramatically from his career-high 10% mark of 2021, when he had 17 walks in 170 plate appearances.
“I know I walked less last year than I had in the past; I think both are versions of me,” Hoerner said. “I didn't set out to walk more when I walked more, and I wasn’t like, ‘I’m swinging at everything,’ last year.
“Things come and go. I had stretches last year where I walked more. Obviously, in the leadoff spot, getting on base is important, but base hits get you on base, too. I’ll just continue to have good at-bats and, hopefully, everything will be in a good spot at the end of the year.”
Although Hoerner’s experience hitting leadoff in the Majors is limited, he won’t change his approach if he’s getting things started. For road games, he acknowledges that there’s something different about being the first hitter of the game, but he’s ready for the challenge.
“Just routine-wise, if you're up and you're the first hitter of the game, there is a level of actually being ready for the first pitch of the game instead of the bottom half or kind of easing into it,” Hoerner said. “I'm always ready for the first thing I have to do, but literally you’re the first thing. There's that part of it. I’m excited. I think it's a nice chance to help the team set the table a little bit.”
It remains to be seen whether the Hoerner experiment carries into the regular season and stays that way for six months, but if it does, the Cubs will have something they have been seeking since their 2016 championship season.
“If that's a part of the lineup that they don't have to think about matchups or anything and I’m just plugged in there and ready to go, I think that helps our team out a lot,” Hoerner said. “I’m all for it.”