Is There Any Hope for Eduardo Nunez’s Defense?

There’s a decent chance this throw resulted in an E6.

Eduardo Nunez is one of the biggest question marks on the Yankees’ roster headed into the 2013 season. Those question marks are directly tied to his tendency to misplay balls on defense. Outside of his great speed, the 25-year-old “infielder” hasn’t done much to suggest he deserves a spot on a big league roster. In 491 PAs over the last 3 years, he’s yielded unimpressive performances with both his bat and glove. The Yankees have consistently said they view Nunez as a shortstop, but his on-field performance has made that a little hard to believe.

There’s no denying the fact that Eduardo Nunez has looked lost in the field. We don’t even have to look at advanced metrics to tell us that. Good old fielding percentage tells his the story well enough. In 64 games at 3B, he has a .920 fielding percentage. His work at SS has been just as bad: .926 fielding percentage in 77 games. While that is a small sample, it’s backed up by a .940 fielding percentage in 641 games at shortstop in the minors. Nunez’s .926 fielding percentage is by far the worst among shortstops with any sort of playing time since his first taste of the majors in 2010. Next worst is Dee Gordon with .949.

Despite his struggles, there’s a very good chance Nunez will break camp with the team given the internal options. Yogi Berra is even clamouring for him to play almost every day. For now, Nunez looks to slot in as the utility infielder barring any infield injuries (or a setback by Jeter). He would get most of his reps at short, though, as Jeter will probably spend some time at DH early on.

Nunez played shortstop almost exclusively in the minors; so it’s the position where he’s most comfortable. Shortstop is also a position where defense is paramount. Simply put, a team can’t afford to have their shortstop misplaying 7% of the balls hit to him. The general consensus is that Nunez has the range and arm strength to play shortstop. The issue has always been his hands and throwing accuracy. The Fans Scouting Report agrees with this evaluation. Last year, Yankees fans rated his first step, arm strength, and speed as above-average. His hands, release, and throwing accuracy were all rated terribly.

Theoretically, things like arm accuracy and fielding ability can be learned. The classic anecdotal example is Derek Jeter who committed 56 errors (.889 FP) as a 19 year old in A ball. Jeter’s range has left a lot to be desired, but he’s done a very good job of converting routine plays into outs over the years. But Nunez isn’t a kid out of high school adjusting to life in the minors. He’ll be 26 years old in June and has played over 700 professional games at shortstop. Sure he’s been jerked around the diamond a bit the past couple of years, but it’s not like he was playing stellar defense in the minors before that. So is there any hope for him?

I decided to look for seasons by shortstops who committed lots of errors and to see if any of them eventually figured it out. My (admittedly arbitrary) criteria were: >300 innings, <.940 fielding percentage, aged 22-28. Since the expansion era (1961), there have been 38 such seasons, including Nunez’s 2011. The good-ish news is that these players combined for a .963 fielding percentage over the remainder of their careers—still below average, but certainly manageable for a player with good range (think Starlin Castro). Quite a few of these players understandably didn’t receive many more opportunities at shortstop. Only 13 received even 600 (roughly 1 season’s worth) of additional defensive chances.

Most of these guys made some progress, but remained well below-average defenders. There are some success stories though. Larry Brown and Bert Campaneris both struggled with errors early on and eventually figured out a way to cut down and become plus defenders. Although guys like Ricky Gutierrez and Roberto Pena never exhibited good range, but they did become more sure-handed with experience.

Nunez
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So what can we glean from this data? (Other than an increasingly rare Ricky Gutierrez reference) First of all, we can conclude that the odds are stacked against Nunez developing into a good shortstop. This shouldn’t be a shocker to anyone who’s watched him play. Most of the guys who struggled as badly as Nunez either continued to struggle or simply stopped getting chances. It is reassuring, though, to see cases of players who did figure out a way to cut down on their errors.  While the examples of success stories are very few and far between, they do exist. So not all hope is lost.

The Yankees still haven’t given up on Eduardo Nunez as a shortstop. This may have more to do with the team’s lack of financial flexibility to bring in another infielder than their faith in Nunez. Whatever the reasoning, he will get another shot this year. With Jeter in the twilight of his career, there’s a very clear path for Nunez to be the everyday shortstop as soon as next season if he shows he’s ready. 2013 will be a crucial year for Nunez as it very well could be his last opportunity to show signs of life in the infield. If he continues to throw routine grounders wide of Mark Teixeira, he may be looking at a move to the outfield which would substantially lower his ceiling as a player.

Photo by Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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