Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Eduardo Núñez.
The Question: Can Eduardo Núñez improve his patience, even marginally?
Generally speaking, the fans’ collective attitudes surrounding any given player on the 2018 Red Sox roster were positive. It’s hard to be overwhelmingly negative about a team that wins 108 games and the World Series, though we all know there are...certain high-profile media members who would disagree. Still, most players were outstanding and it was understood by most everyone. Of course, there were some players on the other side of the coin, and perhaps no one was as derided as Eduardo Núñez.
After the infielder came in midway through 2017 and helped provide a much-needed spark to that lineup, he fell totally flat in 2018, ultimately costing the team more runs than he earned. Most of the negative attention was, understandably, focused on his defense. With Dustin Pedroia on the shelf, Núñez was forced into regular playing time at second base and he clearly was no longer suited to play middle infield. I think much of the time we talk about defense we are too quick to move to the extreme on either end of the spectrum, but that wasn’t the case here. Núñez was brutal in the field.
Putting that aside, though, it wasn’t like he was carrying his weight with the bat in his hand, either. The offense wasn’t quite as bad as the defense, but it was still well below average. Over the course of the season, Núñez had accrued 502 plate appearances and hit a dismal .265/.289/.388 for a 78 wRC+. In other words, he was 22 percent worse than the league-average hitter last year and among the 144 players with at least 500 plate appearances only six were worse. There were, clearly, a lot of issues at the plate for the veteran in 2018, but one stood out among the rest. Hell, even if you had no access to numbers and could only rely on what you saw with your eyeballs, you’d know all of his problems begin and end with his aggressiveness. He had some health issues from which he was recovering that certainly didn’t help matters, but first and foremost it was the plate discipline that cost him.
To be fair to Núñez, it’s not as if this was a new issue that popped up in 2018. He’s been one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball the entire time he’s been in the league, and it’s worked out just fine for him in the past. Prior to 2018, he had been average-to-above-average at the plate for three consecutive seasons. That’s no small feat. So, you can’t realistically just expect him to transform into a super patient hitter at this point of his career as a 31-year-old. It’s not going to happen.
That being said, he has actually been trending in the wrong direction. One would think that, as a player gets older he gets a better understanding of the strike zone and just generally a more disciplined approach. However, Núñez has watched his walk rate decrease in each of the last three seasons and his 2018 3.2 percent walk rate was roughly half of what he consistently put up in the first half of his career with the Yankees. Players can succeed with low walk rates like this — Javy Baez was an MVP candidate with a 4.5 percent walk rate last year — but it’s very difficult. Even small strides would help Núñez get closer to the production he was at just a few years ago.
To be fair to the veteran, he actually wasn’t any more aggressive on pitches out of the zone than he was in 2017. In fact, according to Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers, he was slightly less aggressive with an O-Swing rate (the rate at which a batter swings at pitches out of the strike zone) of 38 percent. In 2017 that number was 41 percent. That being said, 38 percent was still the second-highest rate of his career and it was still among the highest in baseball, coming in at 29th among the 307 batters who saw at least 1500 pitches in 2018. He was also 29th on the leaderboard for just simple swing rate, regardless of where the pitch ended up. It’s not inherently bad to be aggressive, but it’s bad to be aggressive when you see bad pitches. That was the case with Núñez, whose reputation allows opponents to push the edges of the zone because they know they can induce swings. Sure enough, he saw strikes at the 20th-lowest rate in all of baseball among that same group of 307 batters.
It’s obviously a lot easier said than done to simply stop swinging so often, but at the same time it’s a necessary adjustment for Núñez at this point. Unsurprisingly, pitchers are peppering him with more and more non-fastballs, and unsurprisingly he is having trouble laying off. If he can add just a little more pitch recognition into his approach and force pitchers to fall behind, he should see more fastballs. More fastballs, of course, results in easier pitches to hit and at that point the aggression becomes an asset.
To put it simply, he just needs to let the at bats come to him rather than trying to force the issue too early in every plate appearance. That’s useful sometimes, but not as often as he makes it seem. Even a modicum of improvement with his discipline would go a long way, too. More taken pitches, again, leads to more fastballs, which leads to more hittable pitches. In 2018 Núñez posted a .290 batting average on balls in play and a .123 Isolated Power (SLG -AVG), the former being his lowest mark since 2014 and the latter being his lowest since 2013. A slight improvement in the walk rate would be great, but the bigger benefit here would be improvements to his quality of contact.
Núñez doesn’t have the highest of expectations at this point, which is understandable after how he played last year. However, he has a chance to open some eyes in 2019. Another year away his knee injury can only help him, even just from a mental standpoint, and you have to imagine he was affected by what he knew was bad defense at an important position. Those things wear on you and affect you elsewhere. If he can take what should be gains there, add in some benefits from hopefully being put in more advantageous situations this year and throw in better plate discipline? Núñez could surprise people in 2019.