DENVER — Jump throws aren’t part of Nico Hoerner’s pregame routine. But they’ve become a regular feature in his defensive highlight reel at shortstop.
“There’s fundamentals in a play like that, of sorts, but it’s not something you go into the game like, ‘Today’s the day I’m going to do that,’ ” Hoerner said. “The game kind of tells you at a certain point.”
It told him it was time during spring training on a chopper to his right against the Angels, resulting in an inning-ending play. It told him again in Pittsburgh last weekend, as he traveled deep into the hole and robbed Ke’Bryan Hayes of a single.
Only a couple weeks into the regular season, Hoerner has already put to rest any outside concerns about his ability to become an everyday big-league shortstop. He looks comfortable back in the position he had played for most of his pre-major-league career. And with defensive shifts in play, the Cubs have been able to get the most out of his range and versatility to strengthen their infield defense as a whole.
“Especially with [shortstop Andrelton] Simmons out, Nico really anchors us defensively,” said Cubs bench coach Andy Green, who works with the infielders. “He’s the kind of guy that everybody moves around defensively from our positioning standpoint. So he covers a ton of ground and we can give him space to do that.”
Take the 9-6 loss Saturday at Coors Field, for example. When left-handed hitter Charlie Blackmon hit a ground ball to shallow right field in the sixth inning, Hoerner was right there in the rover position to field it for a routine out. Then, he hustled back to the other side of second base as right-handed hitter Yonathan Daza stepped up to the plate.
“I’m still, you know, in all different parts of the diamond,” Hoerner said. “And so that’s -always going to be a part of the game.”
In previous years, when Javy Baez roamed at shortstop and Hoerner played second base, Hoerner would still move into that -rover position against lefties.
“Nico’s phenomenal in the four-hole in the outfield grass in the shift against the left-handed hitters,” Green said. “And Nick [Madrigal] turns a really good double play. So, we’re keeping Nick close to the bag, and just using that as a consistent theme against the left-handed hitters.”
The Cubs have been cognizant of balancing the workload between their middle infielders, so that won’t be the case every game. On Saturday, Jonathan Villar started at second base instead of Madrigal. When Simmons (right shoulder inflammation) returns from the 10-day injured list, there could be some games when he plays shortstop and Hoerner plays second base.
Hoerner understood that he could end up playing a variety of positions.
“In general, it’s a little easier to go from preparing to play shortstop and then moving over to second base than preparing to play second and then having to play short,” he said. “So, my attention is definitely on shortstop, took ground balls all over the place.”
The work has paid off.
“The jump throw is just kind of the highlight-reel version of what you see him do when he makes routine plays,” Green said. “He fields them on the move consistently, and he’s comfortable on the move, comfortable throwing on the move.”
There are some things that Hoerner’s looking for to judge whether to make one of those high-flying plays or hold the throw. For example, when he threw out Hayes, he noticed that the Pirates hitter was jammed on the play and didn’t get out of the box well. But mostly, he lets instinct take over.
“Javy probably would have made that play, too, but he would have done it in a different way,” Hoerner said. “He would have thrown it on the run, he wouldn’t have jumped. That’s how he does it. And that’s what works for his body. So, just figuring out what works best for your own body, and letting athleticism come to play.”
No one can be Baez. But the Cubs have -another shortstop making ridiculous plays look easy in his own way.