Nunez improves in the field, now it’s time to hit

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(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

This season is the opportunity of  a lifetime for Eduardo Nunez. The 25-year-old is getting a chance to play shortstop on an everyday basis thanks to Derek Jeter‘s ankle surgery and subsequent setback, and he’s going to continue to play the position regularly because the Cap’n isn’t due to return until after the All-Star break. It sure doesn’t seem like there is a trade in the works to acquire another shortstop either.

The biggest question about Nunez coming into the year was his defense, especially his throwing. His throws were strong but far too often very wild, so much so that the Yankees had to send him to Triple-A last May to sort things out. That demotion may have saved the team a couple hundred grand next year, but that’s besides the point. The club penciled Nunez in as the everyday shortstop during Jeter’s absence this year and that was a very, very risky proposition.

To date, Eduardo’s defense has mostly been a non-issue. He’s committed three errors in 22 games and 178 innings at shortstop, and only one of the three was a throwing error. That came over the weekend when a throw pulled first baseman Lyle Overbay off the bag just a bit. Nunez worked with first base coach/infield instructor Mick Kelleher to shorten his throwing motion in camp and the results have been overwhelmingly positive so far. I think we all still get nervous when a ball is hit his way, but give Eduardo credit. He worked hard and has greatly improved his defense, particularly his throws.

Of course, defense is only half the battle. Maybe less depending on your point of view. Offensive expectations certainly weren’t high coming into 2013, but Nunez hasn’t hit a lick in the early going. He comes into today riding an ugly 4-for-36 (.111) streak, which has dropped his overall season batting line to .169/.273/.185 (32 wRC+) in 79 plate appearances. No, it’s not a huge sample nor definitive evidence of how he will hit going forward, but Nunez has been awful at the plate even considering the low offensive standard for the position (87 wRC+ league average at shortstop). There’s no argument to be made otherwise.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Because he doesn’t offer much power (career .100 ISO) or much patience (career 6.7 BB%), Nunez’s entire offensive game is built around contact and speed. He’s a (very) poor man’s Ichiro Suzuki, someone who just puts the ball in play, runs, and hopes for the best. While hitting .272/.318/.384 (88 wRC+) in 491 plate appearances from 2010-2012, Nunez posted a 10.4% strikeout rate and an 88.2% contact rate. Those are both far better than average. So far this year he’s sitting on a 17.3% strikeout rate and an 83.3% contact rate, which are still better than the league average. Just a touch better though. When it comes to pitches in the strike zone, Nunez is making contact on 88.0% of his swings in 2013 compared to 92.5% from 2010-2012.

Contact and swing rates — his swing rates on pitches both in and out of the zone haven’t changed much this year — stabilize relatively quickly, so this isn’t necessarily something that will simply revert back to his career averages over time. Nunez is hitting way more fly balls (42.6% in 2013, 34.5% from 2010-2012) and fewer ground balls (40.7%, 47.4%) this year, which is the exact opposite of what you want to see from a speed player. Fly balls turn into outs more easily than grounders, plus they completely eliminate the speed aspect. There’s no pressure on the infielders to make a play quickly, stuff like that. Yes, his .204 BABIP this year is way low for any player, especially one who came into the year with a .291 career mark, but the reduced contact and ground balls rates indicate the problem is something more than dumb luck.

Hitting coach Kevin Long has reportedly worked with Nunez on his balance at the plate recently, specifically by widening his base and eliminating some of his stride. It goes without saying that balance is important, especially for a contact guy who needs to be short to the ball. Eduardo should see his numbers improve in part due to simple BABIP correction, but that alone won’t turn him into the average or even slightly-below-average hitter the Yankees need him to be. Maybe Nunez is being exposed with regular playing time or maybe he’s just in an early-season funk, but his production has been a drain on the offense from the bottom of the lineup. If he doesn’t show improvement in the coming weeks, the Yankees are going to have to consider finding a replacement.

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  • Eddard

    I think resources were incorrectly diverted towards Ben Francisco and just now we’re hearing that Klong is finally working with Nuney to improve his stance. Kelleher has fixed Nuney in the field, now Klong needs to fix him at the plate. From my naked eye, it looks like Nuney is swinging for the fences all the time. He needs to cut down on his swing and hit more for contact. He either needs to step further away from the plate or adapt to the inside pitch because that’s where he gets beat.

    • The Real Me

      I think you’re blinded by your love of Nunez. My guess is that Long is quite capable of working with more than one player at a time. Your thoughts that he was focusing on Francisco at the expense of Nunez just don’t make sense to me. Nunez simply hasn’t adjusted as of yet. I don’t think he’s this bad, but I doubt he’ll be much better than a .255-.265 hitter in his career if he gets regular playing time. Not bad for a utility player, but not really good for a regular.

      • jsbrendog

        cosign all of this

        ::creepy smile and thumbs up::

      • Robinson Tilapia

        Eduardo Nunez: “Hey Kevin, how come you spend all your time with Ben Francisco, and not with me?”

        Kevin Long: “Who?”

        Eduardo Nunez: “You know, Ben Francisco.”

        Kevin Long: “Never heard of him.”

      • Stan the Man

        I guess it doesn’t matter that he was a .271 hitter in 470+ plate appearances. I guess he is what he is in this 79 AB sample and there is no hope for him.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      What resources, exactly, were diverted towards Ben Francisco? I’m not seeing a team of hitting sleuths following him around at every turn.

      Eddard, your boy Nuney may just not be as good as you think he is. Can I offer you a chair? Make you a cocktail? How about a nice warm compress?

  • mitch

    A couple games ago Chris Stewart dropped down a bunt and had an easy single. Nunez and Gardner need to learn to do that.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      The third baseman was playing all the way back. They never do that for Nunez and Gardner (and Ichiro). It’s not as easy as simply laying down a bunt.

      • mitch

        agree it’s a totally different situation, but it’s still a skill both of them are lacking. When you’re 4-40 it’d be nice to have an extra way to get a cheap hit.

    • Improbable Island’s Dirty Midget Whores (formerly RRR)

      I’m pretty sure Gardy did do that, like, two games ago.

  • Tom

    I think we need to be careful calling his fielding improved. The error reduction has been obvious – but there have been quite a few non plays which just get ruled infield hits.

    While it is way too early to put much stock in the advanced defensive metrics, both UZR and DRS have him on a pace in the -20 range (for a full year). SS metrics tend to stabilize faster than other positions as there are more chances so after another month or two these #’s may mean something (1 month is still too small to say anything definitive)

    It does seem like his throwing is improved though.

    • Mike HC

      Going from unplayable to below average is a step in the right direction though.

  • Vern Sneaker

    It always puzzled me that for a guy with good bat speed and contact skills and who’s fast, Nunez didn’t seem to get many hits. Like others, I think that his approach is all wrong for someone without power. As my hitting coach used to tell me, stop swinging so hard, move off the plate a bit, get shorter to the ball, use the whole field. Of course, I still hit .250. (I could pick it, though, but who cares, really?)

  • Dave

    I think the Nunez / Nix experiment is failing. There not doing a horrible job but its pretty close as far as batting. Maybe they need to bring up Adams and Musty. Could they be any worse?

    • mitch

      i think sticking a bad 3B at SS could definitely be worse.

      • jjyank

        Yeah, this.

    • pat

      Which of those two can play SS?

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Neither of them can handle short. I think one of them is a better use of a roster spot than the Ben Francisco Treat.

      Jayson Nix isn’t an experiment. He’s a career journeyman and fill-in getting regular playing time out of need. I apologize on his behalf for his not turning into Mike Schmidt as a result.

    • Mike HC

      I don’t mind the Nix and Nunez tandem as back up infielders. They shouldn’t be playing this much and they haven’t played as well as they could have/will, but they are back ups for a reason. Ben Francisco in a starting DH platoon is horrible and just about every team will be better in that position than the Yanks, but Nix/Nunez as back ups is probably just about what other teams have and isn’t a disadvantage compared to other teams.

  • Monterowasdinero

    I like Nunez. He is aggressive and exciting on the basepaths and forces the issue and we have way too few guys on the roster like that. His defense has been very good with kudos to Kelleher and the fact that a bad throw doesn’t mean he returns to the bench for a week as Jeter goes back in-takes the pressure off.

    He’ll hit…

    • WhittakerWalt

      “aggressive and exciting on the basepaths” is awesome and all, provided you’re ever on the basepaths.

      • monterowasdinero

        A hanging curve that Whitaker (don’t call me Steve or even Sweet Lou) jumps all over…

  • brian

    Under no circumstances should the Yankees look for a replacement…

    Jeter is coming back and he’s coming back to play short against RHP (with a few off days) and DH against LHP

    Just let Nunez play everyday until sometime in July (or at worst early to mid August) when the Jeet man gets back

    He’ll hit

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Perhaps not a “replacement,” but the only shortstop behind Nunez and Nix, at the moment, is Gil Velazquez. If the opportunity to stash someone who has a fighting chance with the bat in AAA exists, they should absolutely be pursuing that. I have no clue who that is.

      If Nunez can’t get to hitting, though, I’m not waiting until Jeter comes back with him.

    • Vern Sneaker

      Sure he’ll hit better than .175, but it’s more and more of an open question whether he’ll hit better than .250-.260. So we’re looking at a very average shortstop — if his fielding holds up. Is that enough? We’ve been spoiled beyond comprehension by Jeter, who is probably finished as anything beyond a barely adequate shortstop if that. In other words, this team has a shortstop issue. The question is how long do we wait to decide what to do about it?

    • The Real Me

      Not sure I agree with you. They can stick with Nunez, but even upon Jeter’s return, I’m pretty sure Nunez will see a lot of time at SS this season and probably next as well. If he continues with his improved defense and steps it up at the plate, then fine. However, I don’t yet see him as Jeter’s full time replacement come 2015, so there’s no reason for the team to stop looking for someone to start playing SS now.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        I’ve never seen him as Jeter’s full-time replacement. I guess that, if the opportunity to acquire that player exists now, you pursue it. I just can’t see who’d stand out right now as that guy.

        We’ve been spoiled indeed.

      • Vern Sneaker

        I guess it depends on what you mean by “fine.” I’m not sure myself. I agree we need to give this some time this year to see how Nunez progresses.

        • The Real Me

          Fine in limited duty, perhaps splitting playing time somewhat evenly with Jeter, or perhaps on the short end of the split (91/71?). Something like that. If he’s to get the majority of the playing time, I’m in favor of an upgrade, again, provided one is attainable.

  • mitch

    What’s the story with Addison Maruszak? His batting numbers are decent. Is he a complete butcher in the field?

    • The Doctor

      Yes, and the bat wouldn’t hold up in the big leagues at all.

  • bill

    It’s almost like…. a lot of us (including mike axisa and yes, even myself, as much as a i love him and know he is one of the greatest yankees and shortstops of all time)… have been taking Jeter for granted all these years..

    Do you see now why Jeter has remained at shortstop??? And why he’s still gonna play shortstop when he gets back for the rest of this year and 2014??? I don’t expect any yankee fans to apologize or whatever, but just admit you were wrong and move on

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Hell, remember what this looked like BEFORE Derek Jeter?

      • bill

        Oh I sure do… although to be fair I always like Alvaro Espinoza

        • Robinson Tilapia

          So did I, and childhood me loved Andre Robertson.

      • Vern Sneaker

        I sure do. Forty years from Rizzuto to Jeter. Kubek was good, Michael and Dent couldn’t hit (tho who can forget “Deep to left, it’s a home run!”) but were WAY better than Nunez in the field; otherwsie not much there.

        • Robinson Tilapia

          Think about the progression from Dent to Jeter. We’ve written our love letters to Robertson and Espinoza already, but there were many, many others.

          If you think life without Mo sounds bad, it may not even be the scariest adjustment for fans to make.

          • jsbrendog

            do not forget tony fernandez, the starting ss on a world series championship team

            • Robinson Tilapia

              Here’s the funny thing: I actually did forget about him. Whoops.

              • WhittakerWalt

                TF was pretty damn good. 5 AS games, 4 Gold Gloves. .288 career BA. He’s no Hall of Famer, but he was better than most of us remember.

        • Kosmo

          let´s not forget Gil McDougal a great all around SS, 2B , 3B.

  • leo mendez

    i think everyone forgot thet nunez got hit twice in his hand in the begining of the season, so his probably dealing with some kind of hesitation in the home plate, what i mean those hit by pitch are still probably in his mind whic is not good for his confident when you r hitting in the home plete.

  • Mike HC

    Nice article. His defense has been a pleasant surprise but it is time for him to hit.

  • Greg

    I totally disagree with the improved defense. I think it’s actually worse than last year. I cringe every time the ball gets hit in his direction. I think he’s been the lucky recipient of some lenient infield hit calls…

    I love him though and hope he gets his act together

    • Improbable Island’s Dirty Midget Whores (formerly RRR)

      What have you been watching? Honestly for the most part I think his defense has been terrific.