Eduardo Nunez and the Case of the Minus-28

The San Francisco Giants and the Minnesota Twins made a little trade last night. The weekend of the trade deadline is here, meaning we’re about to see a frenzy of deals, meaning this little guy involving Eduardo Nunez and barely-a-top-100 prospect that happened on Thursday night is going to get swept under the rug pretty quickly. If you’re here for a deep analysis of the move and the players involved, well, sorry.

I can tell you that Paul Swydan gave you a bit of that last night when the news broke, and Eric Longenhagen whipped up a report on Adalberto Mejia, the new Twins pitching prospect. I can tell you that Eduardo Nunez has been worth 1.0 WAR in his career, and 1.6 WAR this year. He was technically just an All-Star, but he was an All-Star in the way that the guys who finished after Lance Armstrong during his doping years are Tour de France champions.

I can also tell you that something’s fascinated me about Nunez for a while, and this is actually an article I’ve been dying to write. Throughout most of the year, though, folks aren’t exactly dying to read Eduardo Nunez articles. The time is now. I may never have a more opportune moment.

This is what this article will be about:

Nunez

Small sample defensive metrics! Everyone’s favorite topic. Not only that, but from three years ago! My bosses are surely overwhelmed with joy that this is how I’ve decided to use my time on Trade Deadline Friday.

But, I mean, come on. In 600 innings — 600! — our metrics say Nunez was somehow bad enough at shortstop for the Yankees to accrue more negative runs saved (runs spent?) than almost anyone ever. Really:

Worst Defensive Seasons, Shortstops, 2002-Present
Year Name Team Pos Inn DRS UZR tDEF tDEF/1000
2005 Michael Young TEX SS 1356.0 -32 -23.2 -27.6 -20.4
2013 Eduardo Nunez NYY SS 608.1 -28 -20.6 -24.3 -40.0
2007 Hanley Ramirez FLA SS 1301.2 -28 -20.6 -24.3 -18.7
2004 Michael Young TEX SS 1386.2 -27 -18.5 -22.8 -16.4
2007 Derek Jeter NYY SS 1318.1 -24 -18 -21.0 -15.9
-No innings minimum
-tDEF = 50/50 split of Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating
-tDEF/1000 = tDEF scaled to a 1,000-inning season

In half the innings, Nunez’s runs saved totals were nearly the lowest we’ve ever seen. On a per-inning basis, the gap is remarkable. Twice the run gifting of the worst Michael Young season. Don’t even know how that’s possible.

So, let’s find out!

Here’s another way of looking at the numbers. We’ve got Inside Edge Data going back to 2012, and that’s an entirely separate entity from the folks who calculate DRS and UZR. In other words, a third source. If we were newsbreakers trying to confirm a rumored trade, we’d have enough in the way of independent verification to feel confident sending out a “Sources:” tweet.

As you likely know, Inside Edge groups every fielding opportunity into buckets of difficulty, and as you’re less likely to know, one thing I like to do in an effort to avoid any extra noise caused by the grouping of small samples into even smaller samples is to take every bucket under 90% (routine) and add them together, simply calling them non-routine plays. Plays with less than a 90% chance of being converted. Shortstops during the Inside Edge era have converted these non-routine plays about 40% of the time. Andrelton Simmons is typically closer to 60%. Here are the worst non-routine seasons by shortstops recorded by Inside Edge:

  1. Eduardo Nunez, 2013, 15.9%
  2. Brad Miller, 2014, 17.5%
  3. Josh Rutledge, 2014, 19.1%
  4. Ruben Tejada, 2015, 20.0%
  5. Jonathan Villar, 2014, 20.3%

A third source confirms: Yep, worst season ever. Nunez converted about a third as many of the difficult plays as the average shortstop, and about a fourth as many as the best. There’s also this, too: he only converted 94.7% of the routine plays, the sixth-lowest total among 130 shortstop seasons of at least 500 innings since 2012. In 2013, Nunez was the very worst shortstop at making difficult plays, and nearly the worst at making routine plays. In other words, he just didn’t make any of the plays. That’s how we wind up with a -28 DRS in 600 innings.

Those same Inside Edge figures, in image form:

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 9.56.09 AM

On the left, that’s the plays Nunez didn’t make with at least a 10% likelihood of being made. On the right, the non-routine plays he did make.

I know you’ve all been expecting .gifs. Unfortunately, MLB.tv has inexplicably removed all pre-2014 games from its archive, so I’m not able to track down any of those dots on the left like I’m usually able to. Also — I just now realized that, nearly 700 words into this post that I expected would be chock-full of fun, revealing defensive .gifs. I’m as upset as you are.

But we can imagine them! You know what bad defense looks like. Bad Nunez defense is no different — he just did it more often than anyone. One of those orange dots over there in the hole toward third base, Nunez ranges a bit, gets the glove down — but not all the way down — nudges the ball a bit with the glove and then kicks it with his foot into left field. One of the yellow dots up the middle, he reads the ball off the bat poorly and starts a half-step late. He gives a last-second dive for show but the ball simply rolls into center field unabated — most shortstops would’ve gotten to it even without a dive. One of those light-green dots hit right at him? Ball just went through the legs. One of the dark green dots is a lazy throwing error. Rinse and repeat some variation of those four plays literally 31 times and you’ve got Nunez’s season. Text .gifs! Admittedly, not nearly as compelling as gif .gifs.

I suppose I should make some effort to tie this into present, real-world analysis. I feel comfortable saying that Eduardo Nunez isn’t anywhere near a true-talent -40 defender at shortstop. I think I might be closer to being -40 in the field than Nunez. Surely, there’s some noise at play here, and most likely, Nunez drew the short straw when it came to ease of opportunity that year. But also, I’m confident in saying that, for whatever reason, Nunez performed well below his actual true-talent level at shortstop for that season, which brings us to the real point: the actual true-talent level.

Even if you strip away the -28, Nunez grades out as something like a -5 defender per 1,000 innings at shortstop for his career. Of course, it would be silly to strip away the entire -28; those innings still happened, and that’s a third of all his career innings. So, add them all together, and he looks like a -15 defender at short. That’s not what you want. Of course, the Giants have Brandon Crawford at shortstop, so who cares, Nunez was acquired mostly to play third base in the absence of Matt Duffy. Well, Nunez has graded out as roughly a -10 defender per 1,000 at third, too, so he looks like a liability anywhere on the left side of the diamond. The second base numbers in a tiny sample aren’t encouraging either, and the outfield experience is limited.

In other words, Nunez appears to be this rare breed of utility player where he possesses the ability to play nearly any position on the diamond, just not the ability to play any of them well. It’s difficult to know what to make of that. I’d wager plenty ballplayers possess the ability to stand on different parts of the playing field with a glove and the rest of the necessary equipment.

In plenty of ways, Nunez is a changed man, for the better. Since leaving New York, he’s boosted his power enough to become a league-average hitter, and this year, he’s been better than that. He’s recently made an increased effort to use the whole field, and that, coupled with his speed, makes his .320 BABIP appear potentially sustainable. He’s always been a quality base-stealer, and this year, he’s been both more aggressive and more efficient. And, for what it’s worth, in 800 innings since the -28, he’s graded out as average at short. He’s a fine piece as a utility player, it’s only that “utility player” comes with very necessary quotes, and perhaps the most interesting thing about Eduardo Nunez is a record of futility from three years ago. It’s probably a bit unfair, but it’s also revealing. Maybe it’s for the better that we couldn’t see those .gifs.

We hoped you liked reading Eduardo Nunez and the Case of the Minus-28 by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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jruby
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jruby

Two Yankees in the five worst seasons ever? Pffft, clearly pro-Red Sox bias. Hash tag FenGraphs, amirite?!