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The Eduardo Núñez problem

How big of a problem is the Red Sox infielder?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last week or two, the Red Sox have been more good than otherworldly like they were at the start of the season. Despite that, it’s hard to find too much to complain about unless you really go out looking for it. At the very least, there are certainly more positives than negatives. Hot take, I know. That being said, we are Red Sox fans so it will always be in our nature to find some things to complain about. There are a few issues here and there, but I think lately the biggest problem from the outside has been Eduardo Núñez, who has been an issue on both sides of the ball to start the year.

During the last offseason, after the team found out they would be without Dustin Pedroia to start the year, they were on the search for a utility-type player who would also be able to serve as a starting second baseman for a few months. Names like Howie Kendrick and Jed Lowrie were thrown out as possibilities, but ultimately Núñez was the signing. At the time, I was excited despite the infielder coming off his knee injury. He seemed like a good fit in this clubhouse — and that part hasn’t changed at all as he still appears to be one of the leaders on this roster and someone the young guys still look up to — and his utility appeared to be a strength in this age of ever-increasing bullpen usage.

Most excitement around this relatively minor signing has gone out the window through the first month-plus of the season. Núñez has been a damper all over the field to start the year, playing wildly frustrating defense and not quite making it up with the bat like he should. He’s been at least an average hitter by wRC+ in each of the last three years, and it seemed reasonable to expect similar production in 2018.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

That certainly has not been the case, and while the sample isn’t huge there are some bad signs as we’ll get to in a minute. With 108 plate appearances under his belt to start the year, Núñez has hit just .243/.278/.398 for a well-below-average 79 wRC+. As I said, his recent history would suggest that he should see some significant improvement coming up, as he’s been about 20-25 points of wRC+ better than this over the last three years. However, the projections are already discounting his true-talent even with just over 100 plate appearances on the year. Fangraphs has four projection systems on their player pages that project rest-of-season production, and three of them have him with wRC+’s between 91 and 93, and the other has him at 97. That’s...not great.

Digging a little bit deeper into the numbers, it’s a bit of a good news bad news situation. The plate discipline, while not great, has been about what you expect from Núñez. He’s striking out a little more than you want with a 17 percent rate, but that’s still significantly better than average. He’s also not walking much, but that’s always to be expected. The good news here is that, according to Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers, his zone recognition appears improved. He’s swinging at more strikes than he did last year while swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone. His contact rate on strikes hasn’t fallen by so much that I would expect his strikeout rate to close in on his 13 percent career rate.

So, that’s the good news. Núñez’ approach is trending in the direction you want to see and he should at least make a little more contact than he has so far. The bad news is that when he does make contact it hasn’t been as solid as you’d like. The infielder has never had huge power, but he gets by despite his low walk rate because between his high contact rate and high batting average on balls in play he gets on base despite the lack of free passes. This year, his BABIP has fallen to .272, which would be the worst mark of his entire career. For context, he’s had gotten mark to at least .314 in each of the last three years.

This season, he’s just not making good contact. His hard-hit rate is lower than it’s been since 2014 and his soft-hit rate is higher than it’s been since 2011. His line drive rate is way down and both his flyball and infield popup rates are both way up. (These batted ball numbers are from Fangraphs.) These trends need to change if he’s going to get his BABIP back to where it has been, and if Núñez is going to be the hitter he has been he needs that BABIP up.

Of course, while the offense has been frustrating it’s been the defense that has been really bad. I’m not really sure what else there is to say about it, to be honest, because it’s essentially at a point of no return. Maybe it’s the knee injury still bothering him, because while Núñez was a bad defender last year it really seems like he’s taken it to a new level in 2018. Whatever the case, it’s increasingly clear that he is a much better fit at third base and there just isn’t room there on this roster.

The Red Sox are really in a tough spot with Núñez. It’s really clear that he shouldn’t be playing very much these days, but if they want him to get back to where he should be at the plate he needs to hit. Ultimately, when Brock Holt comes back he will start to take more starts at second base, and Dustin Pedroia is going to take over the every day role at some point after that. Núñez was always a better fit as a bench player to fill in for starters than in this everyday second base role, and that’s becoming increasingly clear as the start of this season goes on.