Nico Hoerner following footsteps of Stanford teammate Tommy Edman

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs got off to a promising start Saturday night, scoring four singles in the first inning and scoring three runs against Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright four days after Wainwright’s 41st birthday. The key hit was a line drive for the right field from Rafael Ortega’s serve to score Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner.

But Paul Goldschmidt, the National League MVP Award favorite, scored his 34th home run at the bottom of the first to make it a one-point game. Then the two home runs of Tommy Edman and Tyler O’Neill leading the third gave St. Louis the lead. The Cardinals poured it out on that inning, with Yadier Molina’s three-point brace early on for St. Louis, who won 8-4 ahead of 47,816 at Busch Stadium.

Power is one of the real separators between the two centuries-old rivals: the Cardinals in first place are third in the Majors with a hit rate of .429. The Cubs in third place are in the middle of the group at .390.

Many of those Cardinal fans in a sold out crowd came to see Albert Pujols hit his 695th home run. He didn’t, even though Happ took a deep drive from Pujols to the base of the left court wall in the first inning. Fans seemed to enjoy the Cubs misery afterwards, as they tend to do here.

The Cubs are coming out of their best month – it was 15-15 in August – but unless they finish this season by winning at least 15 of their remaining 29 games, they will finish worse than last season’s 71-91 record. That makes the rest of this season all about evaluating the roster to decide who they want to keep and where they can upgrade.

One of those Cardinals home runs caught the eye of one of the Cubs’ most promising young players. Hoerner and Edman were double-cross partners at Stanford in 2016. Edman, junior at the time, played as shortstop. Hoerner, a freshman, played at second base. After Edman was drafted by the Cardinals, Hoerner returned to his natural position, shortstop.

He would like to follow Edman in another respect: gradually gaining the power to go with the strong baseball skill set that brought him to Stanford and professional baseball in the first place.

“The way our program was handled, it was really all about contact,” Hoerner said. “[Edman] he was a guy who has elite contact skills and runs well. In pro ball, he has found his pace in terms of ball driving. It’s nice to see him develop that part of his game too ”.

Hoerner, 25, has been the best Cubs player this season since Baseball Reference’s version of WAR, with his 4.1 bWAR surpassing Happ’s 3.7. Much of Hoerner’s prowess was built on his excellent shortstop lineup. He and Edman are both top four in the Major Leagues with above average outs.

The Cubs are simply waiting for Hoerner’s power to blossom, as it did for Edman, who has scored 13 home runs this season for St. Louis, including one in each of the first two games of this series. Edman also hit 41 doubles in 2021. What separates them is far from unbridgeable: Edman’s career hit rate is .410. Hoerner’s is .379. With the granular way players are rated nowadays, differences on the edge matter.

“In terms of being gritty players, yes, obviously there are some similarities there,” said Cubs manager David Ross. “I don’t like talking about guys from other teams, but the similarities exist. They are both baseball mice that live and die with it. I don’t know Tommy at all, but he looks like a guy who doesn’t give clubs away, he’s proud of his defense, plays all over the court and takes extra bases. Nico also has many of these characteristics ”.

Having played multiple positions in his first three seasons, Hoerner found a home as a shortstop following the departure of Javier Báez last July. Dansby Swanson is the only shortstop with more OAA than Hoerner’s 15 this season. Hoerner is also experiencing his best offensive season since his arrival in the league in 2019, averaging .283 batting and .730 OPS.

Hoerner said his biggest improvement this season is in “things not seen in many metrics”, such as his ability to make double plays, make good tags and relays, and be in the right place for rounds. He thanks Báez for helping to demonstrate how to do many of these things and Cubs bench manager Andy Green for working with him to improve his home defense.

“As a teammate, the thing that stands out about Javy is that, despite all his lightning and excitement, there was a lot of thought about what he did,” said Hoerner. “He was always thinking of a couple of steps forward, a kind of playing that game, whether it was basic running or defense. There is a reason behind much of the greatness you see. You’re like, ‘Wow, what an incredible instinct’, but he’s really rooted in a very smart baseball mind. “

The Cubs have another strong baseball mind on their hands, it seems. Ross was thrilled with Hoerner’s work ethic and leadership skills as a young player. Subsequently, if he can harness some of the powers developed by older players like Báez and Edman, Hoerner could be someone this team will build on for years to come.

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