Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Eduardo Núñez.
2019 in one sentence
Eduardo Núñez was unable to recover from a bad 2018 and ended up having an even worse 2019 that resulted in his release.
There really wasn’t much of anything we can say was positive for Núñez in 2019, which is why he spent basically the entire second half without a team. The best thing we can point to would probably be his personality and presence in the clubhouse, and while that shouldn’t be totally discounted it’s also never a good sign when that’s the first positive that is pointed out about any athlete. Núñez was a positive presence in the clubhouse, though, as someone that clearly kept things loose. Any time he was shown in the dugout during broadcasts he and whoever he was sitting next to were always laughing. He was particularly impactful with Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts, both of whom found themselves under his wing and the three seemingly formed a strong bond. Again, if that’s your top quality on a team you probably aren’t long for this league, but it was something.
If you’re looking for an actual on-the-field impact, well, honestly you’re out of luck. Relative to his overall performance you can find a few things. Núñez had his best month of the season in June when, over the course of 64 plate appearances, he hit .279/.297/.393 for a 74 wRC+. That is still far from impressive, but it was much better than his previous two months. The same could be said of his performance on the road, where he hit .287/.299/.394 for a wRC+ of 80. Again, that these are both positives says more about how bad his partial season was than anything else.
The flip side of there not really being any positives is, of course, that almost everything can be considered a negative. Núñez only ended up getting 174 plate appearances in 2019, but he did almost nothing with them as he finished the year slashing .228/.243/.305 for a wRC+ of 35. Of the 411 players with at least 150 plate appearances in 2019 only three players were worse at the plate by wRC+.
If you want to look at the specifics of what exactly went wrong, you have to start with batted balls. This is how the infielder has always produced any of his value with the bat. Núñez has always been an uber-aggressive hitter, which means that while he puts a lot of balls in play he relies on them turning into hits to succeed. This year, his 26 percent hard-hit rate was the 12th worst in baseball among the aforementioned group of 411 hitters while his ground ball rate was 16th highest in the game. It goes without saying that softly-hit ground balls are not going to result in hits, particularly not for extra bases. Sure enough, his .078 Isolated Power was 15th worst in the game while his .257 was among the bottom 15 percent in baseball. If Núñez isn’t going to at least produce singles and doubles at the plate, there’s not much more room for value in his game.
On the other side of the ball, Núñez was also once again forced to play a little too much second base which is just not a place he can play after his knee injury. If anything, his defense was in an even worse light than it was in 2018. I think he played the position a little better this past year, but that he was being compared negatively to Michael Chavis — a corner infielder for his entire career before 2019 — did not speak well of Núñez. I think he’s still better at third base than he gets credit for, but he shouldn’t play up the middle unless the situation is truly dire.
The Big Question
This is going to be a no. Part of the issue with Núñez is that he is simply getting older in addition to never recovering fully from his knee injury. He was able to produce enough value with his athleticism earlier in his career that it made up for the other deficiencies and resulted in at least something close to an average hitter. Without the athleticism helping him provide value on the bases, beat out singles and stretch hits into extra-base knocks, however, he needed to find improvement elsewhere. The easiest place would be to draw more walks, but that didn’t happen in 2019. Instead, he actually found a way to walk at a lower rate. Núñez walked in only 2.3 percent of his plate appearances in 2019, the second-lowest rate in baseball. (Only Marco Hernández finished with a lower rate.) If he’s going to make some sort of comeback, that rate needs to at least triple.
Núñez spent the entire second half without a team and now he is going to have to look for a job in a muted free agent market this winter. It’s certainly not going to be easy, and he’s certainly going to have to take a minor-league deal if he gets anything at all. I think someone will invite him to spring training if he’s willing to take a MiLB deal, but it’s not going to come with the Red Sox.