The Giants felt comfortable trading Matt Duffy because Eduardo Nuñez was under contract for 2017. We can debate the wisdom of that decision another day, but it’s clear that the team was counting on him for this season. I’ve read people discussing Conor Gillaspie as a potential platoon-mate, and I know I’ve daydreamed about Jae-gyun Hwang hitting 30 homers as recently as five seconds ago, but Nuñez is clearly the starter.
That’s probably a good thing. Nuñez might be the most underrated Giant.
I want to take a trip back to August, 2016, when baseball was shaving us and pulling our sternums through our ears. The Giants were awful, and a homegrown favorite was gone. We were so very touchy. And for Nuñez’s first week, we were treated to plays like this:
It was not fun.
For the rest of the year, though? Solid. Better than expected. His defense might not make him a Gold Glove finalist, but if you believe the stats at FanGraphs, Nuñez’s glove was a net positive. The eyeball test matched up, at least after the first week.
If the defense can help, Nuñez doesn’t have to hit .296 with power and make another All-Star team. It’d be a lot cooler if he could do that, but he would still be a viable starter if he offered less. With his speed, he doesn’t need to hit a whole lot to be a productive third baseman, as long as his defense is at least average.
There are some points of order:
- Nuñez had never received more than 338 plate appearances in a major league season before last year. This starting business is new to him
- He’s certainly never been plopped into a position and left there. The Yankees and Twins used him all over the diamond, and the only reason he started as much as he did last season is because he was hitting too well to sit.
- He’s still 29 for a couple months, which means he’s right in his prime
- We now have a season-and-a-half of him hitting like a league-average player, which isn’t a small sample. League average is good.
- Even though it seems like he slumped compared to his first-half numbers, that’s mostly just AT&T Park messing with us. His wOBA was .327 before the trade and .316 after.
- Dude stole 40 bases last year. The only other player to steal more than 30 since Barry Bonds’ 40-40 season was Dave Roberts in 2007.
All of that keeps me optimistic about Nuñez. He’s the perfect example of a player we’ll love a lot more if someone like Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, or Brandon Belt has the kind of season that gets him stray MVP votes. If there’s a hitter standing out in the lineup, it’s a lot easier to appreciate the average hitters around him, who are helping tremendously by not being awful.
If everyone is average at the same time, though, it’s kind of annoying. This is a baseball truism you can keep in a locket around your neck. Nuñez being ordinary but fast won’t keep us warm during a 3-1 loss to the Padres. We saw it last year.
That doesn’t have much to do with how Nuñez will do this season, mind you, just how he’s perceived.
If we’re looking for tangible evidence that Nuñez will be solid, one of the leading projection systems is optimistic.
And another one hates his face.
Baseball Prospectus (PECOTA)
To put it another way, FanGraphs’ projection is equivalent to PECOTA’s 90th-percentile projection. That seems off.
The difference is defense. If you think Nuñez can catch and throw like a normal third baseman, which his 2016 defensive numbers suggest, he’ll be a valuable player. If you think his defense at third is a crime against nature, as it was statistically in every season before 2016, then you’ve already ordered your Hwang jersey.
I watched him. And he looked normal. Eyeballs are unreliable, but I certainly didn’t see a failed experiment or anything close to it. He’s probably fine.
And if he’s fine in the field, this will look pretty sweet.
Eduardo Nuñez, 2017 projection
WAR (Baseball-Reference): 2.3
It’s a realistic yet slightly bullish projection from a Giants homer, but, well ... you have a month of these left. Get used to it.
(As always, you’re supposed to leave your own projections for us to laugh at next year. Or you can talk about your lunch. Either way.)