In case you hadn’t heard, the Red Sox officially brought back Eduardo Nuñez over the weekend, designating Ben Taylor for assignment in the meantime. It wasn’t expected to be the highest-impact move of the offseason to this point, but here we are. (I suppose you could argue the Moreland signing over this since it was for more money, but I’d disagree with you on the internet about it.) That’s not to say that the Red Sox won’t make the impact signing we are all expecting involving The Name I Won’t Mention Because I’m Getting Sick Of It, but for now we have just Nuñez to talk about. We know the player a little bit after his short run with the team at the end of last season, a run that sparked Boston to another division title. We know the defense isn’t good but it can play across the infield — some will disagree that it can play, but again, I’m going to disagree with you on the internet about it — and we know the baserunning can be a big positive depending on the knee. The offense is what I want to talk about today, because I think people are expecting too much on both sides of the spectrum.
Nuñez was totally bananas with the Red Sox last year, creating some high expectations for what he can do over a full season with the organization. In 38 games and 173 plate appearances, he hit .321/.353/.539 for a 133 wRC+, meaning he was 33 percent better than the league-average hitter after adjusting for park effects. That’s amazing, and he almost certainly won’t be that good over the course of a full season. Prior to coming to the Red Sox he had been an exactly league-average hitter for the Giants (by wRC+) to start the 2017 season, and that followed two seasons that finished with wRC+’s of 112 and 101, respectively. So, he’s a good hitter especially considering the fact that he spends most of his time in the middle infield, but probably not an star-caliber bat. That being said, I think there’s something to the fact that Fenway and the American League East in general could help his skills play up even a little more than the park effects that are already built into these numbers. To investigate I want to take a quick look at the three areas of his offense — plate discipline, power and all non-home run balls in play.
First, we’ll look at his plate discipline, which won’t be affected by the park but could be affected by the team. The Red Sox have long been known as an ultra-patient lineup built around seeing pitches and getting to bullpens. As teams focus more resources on bullpens and strategically pull starters earlier sometimes regardless of pitch count, this style is less effective as we saw at times in 2017. Alex Cora has made it a point that he wants Boston to be more aggressive at the plate in 2018, and Nuñez fits that mold. Among the 181 players with at least 450 plate appearances a year ago, only 13 swung more often than Nuñez. That’s not all good news, though, as he swung more (relative to the league) at pitches out of the zone than in the zone. As a result, he rarely draws walks, but he also rarely strikes out as he’s in the top-fifth of the league in contact rate. The result of this player is an exciting one to watch, and more importantly a player with a limited ceiling because of his low walk rate but an at least slightly raised floor because of his low strikeout rate.
So, we know that Nuñez is going to put the ball in play much more often than not, so now we have to figure out what happens when the ball is put into play. We know that power has been the focus for so many Red Sox fans this year, and Nuñez was a surprising help in that regard in his time here last year. He hit eight home runs in 38 games with the Sox (a 34-homer pace over 162 games) after hitting just four in 76 games with the Giants. This is where the parks come into effect, as Boston is a slightly above-average home run park for righties whereas San Francisco is the worst home run park in all of baseball. for right-handed hitters. Nuñez seemed to genuinely change his game to fit Boston, too, as he immediately started pulling the ball more than he ever has and hitting the ball in the air more. Sometimes hitters can see the Green Monster and it ruins them, but Nuñez appeared to genuinely change his game for the better. I don’t think this change will result in him posting another .218 Isolated Power like he did in his Red Sox stint last year, but it’s not crazy to think he could beat his previous full-season career high of .149 pretty easily in 2018.
Finally, there is his ability to turn balls in play into hits, which is perhaps the most important part of his game and the one with the most current question marks. As we said before, Nuñez is always going to put the ball in play, so if he can convert those into hits that’s huge for his overall value. As he starts to hit more flyballs like he did with Boston last year, that would result in more outs in most parks. However, that Green Monster can turn a lot of flyballs into singles and doubles that would be outs everywhere else. Really, though, that’s a more marginal effect and his overall effectiveness here comes down to his knee. Nuñez is generally among the leaders in infield hit rate every year, and if he still has that speed to beat out groundballs, along with his new Fenway-oriented approach, he could continue to post batting averages around .320 even without the consistently and eye-poppingly hard contact you see from most players with that kind of true-talent BABIP.
At the end of the day, those who are expecting Nuñez to repeat his 2017-Boston performance in 2018 are going to be disappointed. However, by the same token, those who think he’s going to regress heavily into a maybe-league-average player will be pleasantly surprised. The plate discipline fits Cora’s plan, at least, and he could keep more power than his career track record would suggest given his new park. If the knee is healthy and he can still beat out infield singles, I could easily see a line around .300/.335/.460 that puts him in the 110 wRC+ range. That’s not going to carry the lineup, but I’d certainly take that every day.