Nico Hoerner had never been much of a threat to steal a base, even in college.
Now the Chicago Cubs second baseman is someone opposing teams must keep an eye on.
With his swipe of second base in the fourth inning of Wednesday’s loss at Coors Field, Hoerner stole his 40th base of the season, something a Cub hadn’t done since Juan Pierre in 2006. The last Cubs second baseman to do it was Eric Young Sr. in 2000.
Hoerner has displayed a rare combination of base stealing and run production. He is only the fifth Cubs player since 1901 to record at least 40 stolen bases and 60 RBIs and the first since Ryne Sandberg in 1985 (54 stolen bases and 83 RBIs). The others are Frank Chance (1903 and 1906), George Grantham (1923) and Kiki Culver (1929).
“If you had told me I’d steal 40 bases in the big leagues a couple years ago, I probably wouldn’t really be pretty fired up,” Hoerner said. “It’s not something that I’ve always done at a super-high level. I’ve always played the game hard and and run decently, but I look back at my career whether it’s college or the minor leagues, I never was stealing bases in huge numbers.
“It’s something that takes time. It’s a real skill and it’s a lot more than just how fast you can run, and I’m lucky to be a part of a team and a structure that’s given me a lot of opportunity with that.”
Dating to his freshman season at Stanford in 2016, Hoerner had double-digit steals twice in college, topping out at 15 during the 2017 Cape Cod League and then in his junior year with the Cardinal. He didn’t finish with more than eight in a minor-league season and then stole 20 bases last season for the Cubs.
Hoerner credited manager David Ross and first-base coach Mike Napoli for providing the information and opportunities on the bases. Teaming up together the last two seasons has created a great understanding between Napoli and Hoerner of how each works and how to attack the other team when Hoerner is on first base.
“He’s maturing, he understands the game and he pays attention,” Napoli told the Tribune. “He wants to be really good at stealing bases.”
Beyond that, the Cubs have been one of the best baserunning teams in the majors. FanGraphs’ BaseRunning (BsR) metric combines stolen bases, caught stealings and other baserunning plays, including extra bases taken, outs on the bases and more, and quantifies it into runs above and below average. Hoerner’s 8.6 BsR is fourth best in the big leagues while Dansby Swanson (4) and Cody Bellinger (3.8) also rank in the top 25.
As a team, the Cubs’ 15.6 BsR is the best in MLB, ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays (14.6), Baltimore Orioles (12) and Cincinnati Reds (11.6) and San Diego Padres (8).
“The attention to detail and the information and the confidence guys have now in our system, it’s just the culture that we’re building here in how we’re going to run the bases,” Napoli said. “I mean, it’s not like we have crazy speed here. We got smart guys that are average runners that know how to follow a game plan we put together. We take what people give us. We don’t really try to force too much stuff that is impossible. If it’s possible, we’re going to take our chances.
“Everyone’s bought into knowing that baserunning is a big part of what we do and it’s going to help us win games.”
The Cubs have been aggressive in seeking those opportunities to swipe a base. Their 127 steals entering Friday are third most in the National League and the team’s most in a single season since stealing 151 bases in 1990. Hoerner (40 steals) and Cody Bellinger (20) are also the first pair of Cubs to record at least 20 steals in a season since Tony Campana (30) and Starlin Castro (25) in 2012.
“Anytime there’s hesitancy or doubt, it’s going to make that jump just a little bit worse and add more risks to the play so just trusting that it was a good situation, fully going and whatever happens, happens,” Hoerner said. “For the most part, that’s been to our advantage. There’s been times when I feel like I could have pushed it a little bit more, but obviously understanding that outs on the bases are pretty impactful.”