A shrewd deadline move in 2017 has turned out to be a disaster in 2018. This is the descent of Eduardo Nunez into a terrible all-around baseball player.
Almost a year ago to the day, the Boston Red Sox acquired a utility player from the San Francisco Giants for two low-level prospects, and with it they acquired a top-of-the-order sparkplug for the remainder of the season.
Eduardo Nunez hit the ground running, no, blazing, to start his Red Sox tenure. In the 38 games to finish out the 2017 regular season, the 30-year old infielder was unquestionably the most dangerous hitter in an anemic lineup, slashing .321/.353/.539. In a lineup where only rookie Rafael Devers sported an OPS north of .800, Nunez’s .892 OPS gave the team some much-needed offensive life.
Nunez lasted one pitch into the 2017 playoffs. Hitting second against the Houston Astros in Game 1, well, this happened.
His right knee crumbled and that was the end of Nunez’s season.
Then the Red Sox, still in need of a right-handed infielder, decide to bring back the veteran on a two-year, $8 million deal with a $2 million opt-out for 2019. Not a significant amount of money, but what was significant was the role Nunez was returning to. With Dustin Pedroia’s health outlook questionable at best, it appeared that Nunez would serve as the everyday second baseman.
He was so great in 2017, what could go wrong? As it turns out, everything.
Whether the right knee never truly recovered, or he just hit a wall at 31 years of age, who’s to say. What is clear is that Nunez has been a terrible baseball player in every aspect of the game.
I don’t say this lightly – most players on an MLB roster can bring something to the table. Nunez brings absolutely nothing. He is sub-replacement in every way.
Let’s get into it then, starting with the offense. You saw last year’s numbers, they were awesome. .892 OPS, good for a 128 OPS+. This year? Try a .633 OPS and a 69 OPS+.
Consider these heatmaps of Nunez’s 2018.
The first one shows his slugging percentage in each zone. It looks like he can handle an inside pitch pretty well, and then runs into trouble with the outside part of the plate. Okay, not too bad, at least he can do some damage somewhere.
Now, look at the second one, which shows the percentage of pitches he sees in each zone. Here’s the trouble: MLB pitchers aren’t dumb. If they see a guy that can’t hit the outside part of the plate, they’ll probably try to throw it there. That’s what we see here, a concentrated focus on the outer half. Essentially, Nunez has a painfully obvious hole in his swing that is constantly being exploited.
But at least he plays second base, right? I mean, that has to help hide his offensive woes a little bit. Here’s where Nunez ranks among the 48 second basemen with at least 150 plate appearances:
There’s a lot to digest here, and they all come to the same conclusion: Nunez has been terrible in general, and terrible for a second baseman. Everything pictured here screams sub-replacement, which means that a typical Triple-A reinforcement would perform better than Nunez has. According to Baseball Reference’s estimate, the difference between Eduardo Nunez and a Triple-A player is one and a half wins.
One and a half wins.
Okay, no need to pile on, he’s clearly having a bad year at the dish. But Nunez has been good at other aspects of his game over his career, like baserunning. He stole 40 bases as recently as 2016 and followed that up with 24 steals in 2017. His speed couldn’t have totally gone away, right?
Spoiler alert: his speed has totally gone away.
Let’s go back to our handy table, showing where Nunez ranks in some key baserunning statistics in 2018, provided by FanGraphs. This time, however, let’s expand the field to all positions, the 319 players around the game that have accumulated at least 150 plate appearances. Remember, this list now includes the slowest first basemen, designated hitters, and catchers.
Kids, look away, this isn’t pretty. For reference, UBR refers to the value a player adds on non-stolen base plays, such as taking an extra base or simply avoiding outs on the basepaths. wGDP refers to the skill of avoiding hitting into double plays – after all, making two outs is worse than one. BsR is the all-encompassing baserunning stat from FanGraphs, which takes into account UBR, wGDP and the value of stolen bases.
Nunez is one of the worst in baseball in all of them. How do I really hammer this point home for Red Sox fans?
Pablo Sandoval’s 2018: -1.1 UBR, -0.7 wGDP, -1.9 BsR. That’s right, Nunez has been about three times worse at running than all 255 pounds of Pablo Sandoval.
It’s too late to turn back now, let’s finish this evaluation out with defense. Perhaps Nunez can salvage something here. How bad can you be at second base? It’s not as difficult as shortstop, or center field, or catcher.
As it turns out, you guessed it, really bad.
The 31-year old has suited up 66 times at second base for the Red Sox this season, and well, back to the table we go (out of 48 second basemen with 150+ innings):
Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) are torn about whether Nunez is truly awful or just pretty bad in terms of allowing defensive runs. Let’s split the difference and call him just plain bad at it. Given his aforementioned lack of speed, it’s no wonder that Nunez’s range factor ranks just 45th of 48 second basemen. And just as a cherry on top, he’s not good at turning double plays either, as his DPR ranks 40th.
Also for an added bonus, Nunez has also played 13 games at third base in 2018. In that time he has another -2 DRS.
It’s quite ironic that Eduardo Nunez is known around baseball as a utility player, a player known for having a diverse and broad skillset. A jack of all trades, master of none. In reality, 2018 Nunez lacks all trades. At least the “master of none” thing still holds up.
The guy can’t even tie his own shoes.
As the Red Sox steam ahead with the best record in baseball, it’s even more incredible that the team is doing it with quite possibly the worst second baseman in baseball. Looking ahead, one has to hope that real utility-man Brock Holt can take on a greater everyday load at the keystone position.
Beyond that, keep an eye on newly signed Brandon Phillips as he gets back into baseball shape in the minor leagues, and jaded-prospect Michael Chavis as he makes his return from an 80-game steroid suspension. Both could be vying for playing time when rosters expand come September and could set themselves up nicely for some October playing time as well.
Until then, sit back, relax, and watch the best team in baseball win games with eight major league players on the field… and Eduardo Nunez.