The Re-Emergence of Eduardo Nunez
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com (Aug. 16, 2018 – Source: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images North America)
The Boston Red Sox offense has a lot going for it. Between two MVP candidates in Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez and other fantastic hitters in Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi, it’s easy to overlook some of the less heralded guys in the lineup, like infielder Eduardo Nunez. While he’s not the best bat in the lineup by any means, Nunez is in the midst of a fantastic run. After disappointing for most of the season, Nunez is starting to produce on offense while providing solid defense. How sustainable is the stretch of success, and can Nunez continue to play his best ball during the stretch run?
Eduardo Nunez is Getting Hot Again
Nunez has been on an absolute tear for the better part of a month. Since July 27th, Nunez owns a .309/.329/.485 slash line with a 115 wRC+. While he’s only hit one home run, Nunez has hit three double and three triples.
These are good numbers for any player, but they represent a significant improvement over his early-season work. Prior to July 27th, Nunez was hitting just .249/.277/.342 with a paltry 64 wRC+. Something has clearly changed, but has this been an improvement in skill or luck? Let’s take a look at what the underlying numbers say.
Digging Deeper Into Eduardo Nunez
So, is this drastic offensive improvement a product of luck or skill? While he has improved his game in some ways, it looks like most of this improvement was due primarily to luck. Since July 27th, Nunez owns a fairly unsustainable .339 BABIP. Over the first part of the season, Nunez’ BABIP was .281, so this certainly accounts for a portion of his increased offensive production.
Surprisingly, Nunez is making essentially the exact same type of contact all season long. During the early portion of the season, Nunez was hitting ground balls at a 50.9% clip, a truly egregious number. Compounding that issue was the fact that only made hard contact 26.3% of the time. Hitting the ball softly into the ground is about the worst thing you can do as a hitter, and that’s almost exclusively what Nunez was doing.
These numbers are astonishingly similar to what he’s accomplished since July 27th, when he first started getting good numbers. Over his past 70 games, Nunez is hitting ground balls at a 48.3% rate, essentially the same as what he was doing earlier in the season. His hard contact rate is actually worse, at just 20.0%. He has, however, decreased his soft contact percentage from 28.2% to 16.7%.
One positive sign is that Nunez has improved on his strikeout rate. While his walk rate has remained effectively unchanged (2.9%, down from 3.7%), his strikeout rate has decreased to just 11.4%, a 3.8% improvement. It’s a minimal improvement, but he didn’t strike out that much to begin with. Obviously, putting the ball in play is the only way to produce offense, and Nunez has improved at doing that.
What to Expect Moving Forward
Unfortunately, it looks like Nunez will probably come back to Earth at some point. His BABIP is above league average, he hasn’t drastically changed his approach at the plate, and he’s making essentially the same type of contact. However, there is one other major improvement for Nunez that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.
Nunez suffered a knee injury during the 2017 postseason, and never looked fully recovered in 2018. He was slow on the bases, lacked range on defense, and ultimately looked like a broken player.
However, Nunez has looked considerably healthier over the last month of the season. Advanced baserunning and defensive metrics for sample sizes this small are essentially worthless, but the eye test tells you everything you need to know. Nunez is clearly faster going down the line, and is making more plays in the field.
Additionally, the Ian Kinsler addition has allowed Nunez to play more third base, a much more natural positional fit. This improves Nunez’ value with the glove, and having him more comfortable will indirectly improve his production at the plate.
While Nunez’ numbers will almost certainly dip as the season goes on, they might not dip as much as one might suspect. His knee appears to finally be healthy, which obviously will help improve his production. The Kinsler addition will allow Nunez to platoon at third base, which is a role Nunez is better suited for.
Has he gotten lucky lately? Absolutely. Will he produce in 2018 like he did in 2017? Highly unlikely. However, Nunez is more than capable of serving as a strong platoon at third base. He’ll probably be a bench piece moving forward, and he’ll be one of the better bench pieces in baseball.