Every year, the Orioles and Nationals play games against one another, though the number actually varies depending on baseball’s rotational interleague schedule. These meetings are referred to as the “Beltway Series,” paying homage to the defining characteristic of the region: traffic on I-495 (the Capital Beltway) and I-695 (the Baltimore Beltway). While I am (mostly) kidding, I still sometimes wonder why there isn’t a better name for this geographical rivalry.
Set to factor in that series is Renato Núñez. The Orioles’ slugging designated hitter is having quite the year. Through games on Wednesday, he has more home runs than Bryce Harper, having hit 28 through his first 488 plate appearances. There’s not much beyond the power, though. He’s slashing .240/.309/.478 with a 103 wRC+, and due to his defensive limitations, he’s been held to just 0.7 WAR.
As we know, the Orioles are not in a position of contention this season, which is exactly why a guy like Renato Núñez can get play in the range of 150 games. All teams look for players with untapped potential. Not all teams, however, can give these players the plate appearances necessary to grow into the productivity that potential suggests. But the Orioles can, and Núñez is the beneficiary.
Núñez’s seemingly odd season had me hunting for a comp. What might a player with this skillset — good power, not a lot of contact, below-average discipline — look like in the future? What can the Orioles expect from Núñez in three, four, or five years?
To answer this question, I downloaded every individual player season with at least 300 plate appearances over the last five years, including 2019. I filtered my search using three conditions: a walk rate between 7-8%, an isolated power above .200, and a batting average between .230 and .250. In my mind, these three results-based constraints accomplish two goals: they limit my search to just a handful individual player seasons and allow me to find players who have similar intrinsic characteristics to Núñez’s.
Nine different player seasons turned up as potential matches. Here they are:
There are some interesting names here. Albert Pujols’ 2015 can probably be thrown out; he only struck out in 11% of plate appearances, a far cry from Núñez’s 2019 strikeout rate of 24%. For a similar reason, Teoscar Hernández’s 2018 (31% strikeout rate) can also probably be set aside. All of the remaining players had strikeout rates between 21% and 29%, close enough to Núñez’s 2019 rate to keep them in the running. But, even with this information, it’s worth remembering what we’re doing here. While a single season comparison is good to have as a starting point, I’m looking for a player comparison.
That whittles down the results pretty significantly; there’s only one player on this list who shows up more than once. That player is one who currently plays his home games just miles from where Núñez plays his. He’s going to be sitting in the opposite dugout when his Nationals host Núñez’s Orioles in the Beltway Series next week. That player is none other than Matt Adams.
Upon first glance, Adams seems like a weird comparison for Núñez. First, and perhaps most importantly, Adams is a left-handed hitter; Núñez is a righty. Second, Adams is a first baseman, whereas Núñez has served mainly in the DH slot this season. Even after considering both of these two factors, I still contend that Adams is an excellent choice for a Núñez comp. Let’s first take a look at the two seasons that were considered “matches” in my initial search:
These slash lines are eerily similar, all the way down to the identical .309 OBPs. Let’s take it a step further and compare the two since the beginning of 2018, which is when Núñez began to accumulate more consistent at bats:
The comp holds up well. Both players appear to have similar defining characteristics — they both have enough power to be slightly above-average bats overall, but neither makes enough contact or draws the walks necessary to be much more than that. It’s time to dig deeper, though. Does the comparison hold when looking at the underlying plate discipline stats? Again, we’re going to use the 2018-19 timeframe here:
This is pretty incredible. Both Núñez and Adams tend to swing at above-league average rates, while making contact at below league-average rates. That’s exactly what you’d expect from a low-contact, high-power type. It’s sort of the “swing and hope you connect” strategy. When Núñez has connected this season, the ball has gone far. Just look at this two-run shot from mid-April, Núñez’s second homer of the year:
That was a 113-mph, 450-foot blast that cleared the Green Monster, the few rows of seats atop the Green Monster, and the rest of the Fenway Park.
It’s not as if Matt Adams doesn’t have his fair share of jaw-dropping home runs, either. Take this one from March 31, 2018, when the Nationals were visiting the Reds in Cincinnati:
That was a 109-mph, 460-foot, absolute mammoth of a home run.
I’ve looked at the results, the discipline, and the power so far, but the similarities between Núñez and Adams continue to run deeper. Take a look at their batted ball breakdowns over the last two seasons:
Here we can see that both players aim (rightfully) to hit hard-hit, pulled fly balls. This is where most baseball players generate the vast majority of their power. Since Núñez and Adams rely mostly on their power, it makes sense that they try to lift and pull the majority of their batted balls. This is where they will be the most productive, and this is how they’ll continue to secure big league jobs.
Renato Núñez may never amount to a starting caliber player on a contending team. He might not develop skills beyond his raw power. However, as we’ve seen with Matt Adams throughout his career, teams are always looking for impact power bats. Whether they’re a rebuilding club looking for a spark in the middle of the order, or a contending team looking for a threat off the bench, players like Núñez and Adams will be in demand.
When the Orioles and Nationals face off next week in the Beltway Series, Núñez and Adams might not be the most recognizable names on the roster, but they might be the most similar.
Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.