It’s difficult to categorize a free agent signing meant to provide depth in the infield as a failure. That doesn’t mean some don’t think of Eduardo Nunez in that way. He has not had the greatest 2018 and that’s a big reason why the Boston Red Sox are looking at infielders like Jed Lowrie as potential trade targets.
Nunez, who was brilliant after being traded to the Red Sox last summer, has actually been a negative for the team this year, registering a wins above replacement mark of -0.3 in fWAR and -1.0 in bWAR. That’s right. He has cost the Red Sox an entire win according to Baseball Reference. While his shaky defense has had a lot to do with those negative numbers, his offense hasn’t exactly boosted him any higher either. He is batting .257, which is fine, but he is not getting on base at all and his slugging percentage looks more like a peak Nomar Garciaparra batting average (.373). His 3.8 percent walk rate is nearly identical to the mark he posted last year, but his isolated power is down by 32 points and he also isn’t stealing many bases or hitting for average like he has the last few seasons.
When you mix all of those numbers into one bowl of cold batting soup, you get a wRC+ of 77 and an OPS+ of 75. That means he has been roughly 25 percent worse than a league average hitter. He has still played in 72 games with that production, mostly due to the continued injury issues of Dustin Pedroia. He has also hit better than guys like Christian Vazquez and Jackie Bradley Jr., but JBJ can at least defend his position at a superior level and Vazquez... well we’re not here to talk about Vazquez right now.
Now, the Red Sox do not need Nunez to throw up All Star level numbers. They already have plenty of great bats in the lineup. Still, as long as Nunez is going to keep being a key part of the order, it would be useful if he could at least be league average. In the last three weeks, he has made strides toward that end. In 43 plate appearances since July 15, he has slashed .308/.372/.487 with two home runs and seven runs scored. He has walked a bit more (9.3 percent walk rate) and has actually been a very valuable part of the order, not just an average one. He has poasted a wRC+ of 135 in the sample, while recording a hit in 10 of his last 12 games, including a pair of knocks in each of the last two games against the Washington Nationals. That marked his first time with back-to-back multi-hit games since June 5 and just the fourth time he has done that this season. To put that in perspective, Arizona’s Jon Jay, who has been an exactly league average hitter this season based on wRC+, has laced multiple hits in back-to-back days eight times, including a couple three-game stretches.
Nunez’s recent improvement isn’t necessarily an indication that everything has been fixed. He is still swinging at a similar amount of pitches, including ones outside of the zone, which he is currently on pace to set a career-high in for the full year. He is hitting the ball harder in this three-week stretch (29.4 percent), but that wasn’t really the problem anyway. While below 30 percent isn’t great, he was at a 26.7 percent hard hit rate last year and this year, its actually a smidge higher (26.8 percent).
Something that has changed in Nunez’s offensive work has been where he has located his hits. He is only pulling 26.5 percent of balls in play during the last three weeks, which is down from his 34.2 percent pull rate this season overall. Normally, Nunez has been better when he pulls the ball. He did so 41.1 percent of the time a year ago. But its possible that a more equitable approach at the plate is helping him make more inroads on his quest to get back above what might amount to the wRC+ Mendoza Line.
Nunez was never signed to be an All Star. That was J.D. Martinez’s job. But he was signed to provide league average production at multiple infield positions. Maybe he won’t be able to do that for a full season, but stretches like he’s just had point to the fact that he could at least do it occasionally. That could be enough.
The 2018 Red Sox are awesome but what they do in the playoffs will ultimately determine how they are remembered. (Christoper L. Gasper; Boston Globe)
Playing at Fenway Park has always helped the Red Sox, but is that a good thing? (Matthew Kory; The Athletic) ($$)
Chris Sale just fits in Boston. (Peter Abraham; Boston Globe)
Throwing Rafael Devers a curveball isn’t a bad idea. Throwing him multiple ones could end badly. Just ask Sonny Gray. (Jen McCaffrey; The Athletic) ($$)
Eduardo Rodriguez is happy to use his support system to get better. (Chris Cotillo; MassLive)
Sometimes a foul out can be beneficial. (Peter Abraham; Boston Globe)
David Price could opt out of his contract this offseason, but should he? (Chris Cotillo; MassLive)