Welcome to our 2020 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 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. 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 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we are exploring how 2020 was for Yairo Muñoz.
2020 in one sentence
Yairo Muñoz was originally brought in under somewhat strange circumstance — he straight up left Cardinals camp in March without telling anyone — and didn’t get a ton of chances in the majors, but he got enough to show he can be the top utility player moving forward.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, including Muñoz for this series is a bit of a stretch considering how little he played. There is a method to my madness, part of which admittedly includes me trying to stretch these as close to Thanksgiving as possible. But also, while Muñoz didn’t play a whole lot — the former Cardinal appeared in only 12 games and received 45 plate appearances — I would argue he was one of the more important figures of the 2020 season in that he likely earned himself a future role, which in essence was the point of this season for the Red Sox.
As far as specifics from the season, I would argue that the biggest positive that stuck out to me about Muñoz was the energy he brought to the field whenever he was involved in a play. This is obviously an intangible quality, which certainly doesn’t make it meaningless. Anyone who watched this team for even a few games this year had to have immediately noticed the deflated attitude around the club. It quickly became clear that they were not very good, and the energy level matched that production. Muñoz changed that, if for just a brief time. He’s an extremely aggressive player in every facet, and while that can backfire at times it was the shot in the arm this team needed. Multiple teammates and coaches, including Tim Hyers, spoke on this. These sort of little things are important for a team getting over the hump, not to mention making them worth watching over a long season.
It wasn’t just the intagibles, though. Muñoz was also very good while he was playing, though granted I don’t want to focus too much on the numbers because, again, he barely played. Still, he did finish with a 123 wRC+, and while that was buoyed by a .424 batting average on balls in play, he did at least bring a hard-hit rate over 50 percent to the table. Do I expect that sort of thing to continue? For sure not. But he’s been a bit better than league-average (107 wRC+) over 555 career plate appearances, so expecting a good hitter isn’t an absurd idea.
I would also point out his defense, both how well he played as well as where he played. While he profiles as a super utility type player, he only played the two corner outfield spots this year. Part of that was because, again, he didn’t play enough to play all over the place, and part was because they needed corner outfield help. Left field was a black hole and he filled it. I thought he played very well in those opportunities, too. It’s especially notable that he played so well when you consider he is an infielder by trade. Looking ahead to a more normal season (which is hopefully on the horizon), Muñoz can profile as a guy to play almost every position on the diamond. As a major leaguer the only spots he hasn’t played are first base, catcher and pitcher.
The biggest negative isn’t exactly his fault, which is simply the lack of playing time. In the first portion of the season, that was because there simply wasn’t room. Kevin Pillar was taking up the outfielder spot and guys like José Peraza and Mitch Moreland were clogging up the infield. Once the trade deadline passed, the path was there for Muñoz and it sure looked like he was going to get consistent playing time the rest of the way. That’s how it went for a couple of weeks, but back spasms ended up getting the best of him and he was shut down for the final couple weeks of the season.
I would also point out that the 25-year-old (he’ll be 26 by the time camp starts next year) also didn’t draw a walk this season. Again, sample size concerns blah blah blah. You know all that. In a normal sample I am confident he would not have a walk rate of Literally Zero. That being said, he also had a big problem laying off pitches out of the zone, swinging at a whopping 63 percent of them, per FanGraphs. That’s more than double the league-average 31 percent rate. I certainly wouldn’t expect that kind of rate to continue, but his career rate is still 41 percent, so this is clearly a bit of an issue and limits his ceiling at the plate.
The Big Question
Looking ahead to 2021
As I’ve stated, Muñoz made himself a part of the 2021 picture. Many Red Sox fans still mis Brock Holt, and for good reason. No one will be able to fit the unique presence he represented, to be sure. But on the field? Muñoz can be that kind of player, which is to say he can play all over the field and provide league-average offense while adding a spark to the lineup when he’s in there. I wouldn’t want to hand him an everyday job, both because I’d be wary he can produce up to that level and also because, like with Holt, Muñoz’s greatest value lies in being able to roam around the diamond. None of the non-stars on this roster are guaranteed a roster spot for next season heading into this offseason, but Muñoz is at least as close as it comes.