Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Eduardo Núñez.
The Year in a Sentence
Eduardo Núñez continued to be a positive presence in the clubhouse all year, but that wasn’t enough to overshadow what was a mostly ugly performance on the field through the season.
If we’re being honest, it’s tough to find a whole lot of positives for Núñez during the 2018 season. After providing a massive spark to the team in 2017 when he came over near the trade deadline, he came back on a two-year deal but couldn’t recreate the magic. That being said, there were a few positives. To start, he continued to make contact and put the ball in play constantly. There’s more to hitting than just making contact, of course, but especially in today’s game it is becoming a rarer and rarer skill. Say what you will about Núñez’ plate discipline, and we’ll talk about both that and the quality of his contact, but he made the defense work in almost every at bat too. Núñez struck out just 13.7 percent of the time in 2018. Only 19 of the 144 players who received at least 500 plate appearances this past year struck out at a lower rate.
The hope was that he would be able to turn things on in the postseason, but that didn’t happen to a great extent. Of course, he did have his moments in October, just like everyone else on the roster. The biggest certainly game in Game One of the World Series. Núñez didn’t start that game, but with two on and two outs in the seventh, he came in as a pinch hitter replacing Rafael Devers to face Pedro Baez. Boston had a one-run lead at the time, and many (myself included) were flabbergasted that Alex Cora made that decision. Well, stupid us. Núñez smoked one into the Monster Seats for a three-run shot and sealed the victory. Then, a couple games later in the marathon Game Three, the infielder had a pair of hits after coming into the game in the tenth inning. He also appeared to get injured at least three times but with no players left he stayed in the game. Nathan Eovaldi’s performance that night gets all the attention, and for good reason, but Núñez’ night was just as gutty, just in a different way.
If you really want to find some season-long positives for Núñez, you can look into a few splits too. In fact, the second half as a whole really wasn’t too bad for the veteran infielder, even if it wasn’t great. After the All-Star break he hit a solid enough .282/.301/.435 for a 93 wRC+. Again, that’s not going to make any headlines but it’s a decent bench piece, particularly when you consider his 69 wRC+ from the first half. He was making much better contact later in the year and just generally looked better from an eye-test perspective. Núñez was also much better at home than he was on the road. It seemed from the moment he was traded to Boston that his swing fit well with Fenway, and that continued in 2018. Though he posted a 61 wRC+ on the road, he hit a solid .292/.322/.438 for a 97 wRC+ at Fenway.
Finally, there’s the clubhouse aspect. Obviously, this is not an easy portion of his impact to write about from the outside, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he’s one of the more popular players in the clubhouse among players and coaches. Any dugout shot including him including a group of players laughing and he just gave the impression of keeping things light for everyone around him. Listening to the way Alex Cora talked about him in some postgame interviews, it was clear he held the veteran in high esteem as well. How much stuff like that is worth is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but it’s certainly better than nothing.
Núñez had a rough year at the plate in 2018, but when we think about his season the first thing that will always come to mind will be his performance in the field. Although he is a utility man by trade who can theoretically play all around the infield, the actual results bear a different response. With Dustin Pedroia essentially missing the entire season, Núñez was forced to play second base for a large percentage of the first half before the team acquired Ian Kinsler. Things were....well, Núñez was brutal out there. His range was almost non-existent — no doubt due in large part of his bad knees — and even on some simpler plays he made bad errors. From the outside, it seemed like the bad just kept piling up and it was never going to get better. I maintain that he’s fine at third base even if he’d never win a Gold Glove with regular playing time, but he simply can’t play middle infield spots at this point.
Then, there’s the performance at the plate. Over the course of the entire season, Núñez hit just .265/.289/.388 for a 78 wRC+. We talked above about his contact skills above, and while it’s great he put the ball in play a lot, the quality of the contact was lacking. Núñez generally combined his high contact rate with a batting average on balls in play safely above .300. In 2018 his BABIP was just .290 and his Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) was also 20-25 points below his career norms. That he was coming off a major knee injury certainly hurt him in terms of BABIP, but he also just made poor contact. According to Fangraphs’ batted ball metrics, he didn’t hit the ball any softer than usual, though he was hitting more weak fly balls. His fly ball rate improved significantly, which should lead to more power, but his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio dropped and he saw a big spike in pop up rate. To be fair, his power did return to normal rates in the second half.
Finally, there’s the plate discipline. This is simply a part of Núñez’ game at this point, and you can live with the ultra-aggressive approach when he’s smacking singles and doubles all over the field on a regular basis. That’s how he put up three consecutive above-average seasons at the plate prior to 2018. When he’s struggling with good contact, however, it’s more noticeable and more frustrating. Although he struck out just under 14 percent of the time, he also walked just three percent of the time, which was low even for him. He’s always been a free-swinger, but according to Fangraphs’ plate discipline numbers he swung even more often in 2018. Núñez set career highs in O-Swing% (swing rate on pitches out of the zone) and Z-Swing% (swing rate on pitches in the zone). The latter is better, but if he’s not going to hit for big power he needs to be better about laying off bad pitches.
The Big Question
Will Eduardo Nuñez be able to provide value on the bases?
As alluded to above, Núñez’ 2017 ended prematurely when he suffered a major knee injury right at the start of the ALDS against the Astros. When he re-signed for the 2018 (and 2019) seasons, there was a legitimate question about how it would affect his speed. Remember, a large portion of his value had always come from his plus speed and his ability to wreak havoc on the bases. That suffered in a big way in 2018. After stealing 64 bases combined between 2016 and 2017, he swiped just seven bags (in nine attempts) in 2018. Furthermore, his BsR (Fangraphs’ baserunning value metric) plummeted to -6.2, tying him with Justin Bour as the fourth worst baserunner in baseball. Even with the defensive and offensive struggles, the baserunning may have been the most disappointing portion of his year.
The Year Ahead
Núñez technically didn’t sign a two-year deal but a one-year deal with a second-year player option, but after the 2018 he had he was obviously going to stick around. The Red Sox aren’t going to be able to trade him, and with his clubhouse presence I’m not convinced they’d want to considering the small return they’d get if they got anything at all. So, he’ll be around in 2019, and likely in a smaller role than 2018. If Pedroia can stay healthy, Núñez should be limited to mostly third base and DH and over 300-400 plate appearances I’d expect something approximating his second half in terms of overall value. Not great, but better then this past season.