Nico channeling Jeter with strong arm at SS

April 8th, 2022

CHICAGO -- Nico Hoerner sent a message flying across the Sloan Park infield last weekend. From deep in the hole, Hoerner gloved a grounder, left his feet and made it clear that he has the makings of a dynamic shortstop.

"A little Derek Jeter jump throw," Cubs manager David Ross said. "That was nice. Man, nothing shocks me when Nico does something."

No one has doubted Hoerner's defensive ability since he broke into the big leagues in September 2019. He has always had tremendous range -- to the point that he was a National League Gold Glove finalist at second base two years ago.

The one criticism that has followed Hoerner has been whether he had the type of arm strength required for shortstop. That position is a different beast than second base. Then again, maybe all the eyes watching Chicago's infield were spoiled witnessing Javier Báez at short.

Báez is no longer anchoring the Cubs' infield. He is making magic with Detroit now. And with El Mago out of the picture, this is Hoerner's chance to show that he has what it takes to develop into a core star at the position of his predecessor.

"He works so hard and cares so much about his defense," said Cubs bench coach Andy Green, who doubles as the team's infield instructor. "He has everything to be a really good big league shortstop."

That "Derek Jeter jump throw" came Saturday, when Hoerner ran down a chopper off the bat of the Angels' Michael Stefanic in the second inning. It was only one play, but it was the culmination of work Hoerner put in over the offseason and throughout the spring to improve his throwing.

In addition to staying consistent with a throwing program, Green noted that the 24-year-old Hoerner also mixes in tossing a football. It might sound pointless, but the bench coach explained that the exercise actually helps mechanics and focusing on "true carry" on throws.

Hoerner explained that there is more to improving throwing than just getting stronger and honing mechanics. It is also about getting more familiar with opposing batters, becoming more familiar with shifts and positioning, and having the type of quick thinking and footwork that makes a strong throw possible.

“The arm is like the last part of the chain," Hoerner said. "It works from the ground up, just like bat speed. It's not your hands or your arms swinging the bat. It's the whole chain. It's moving your feet, getting a good hop and then just trusting and having confidence as well. If all those things line up, then it comes out pretty good."

The Cubs noticed a difference in that aspect of Hoerner's game throughout the spring.

"The arm strength is really impressive," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. "That's always been something that at shortstop, 'Oh, he doesn't have the strongest arm.' But I think he's really showed off good arm strength. That jump throw was really impressive.

"He's a great athlete. I think he can do it. I think he really wants the opportunity, which I love, and we're going to give it to him."

Hoyer noted that Hoerner will have more "runway" at the start of the season, given that veteran Andrelton Simmons is on the injured list with a right shoulder issue. That said, Ross also plans on being careful about Hoerner's playing time out of the gate.

Last year, Hoerner was limited to 44 games due to various injuries. Likewise, second baseman Nick Madrigal missed the last three-plus months due to a right hamstring surgery. Building in days of rest is a priority for Ross, who had Hoerner on the bench on Friday before the game was postponed due to inclement weather.

"We can't red-line him and end up hurting him," Hoyer said. "I just hope he can stay healthy this year. He's really talented. He's a great teammate, a great competitor, and the biggest key for him is to get on the field."

Hoerner knows that, too, and he tailored his offseason program accordingly.

"My primary focus was on health," Hoerner said, "and understanding that if I have a healthy body, and what that looks like over a full season, I trust that my results will be there at the end of the year."