During Spring Training in 2009, Eduardo Nunez and Ramiro Pena started to get a lot of hype after showing decent hitting skills and making flashy defensive plays. A quick glance at either of their numbers would've told you that neither was a particularly strong prospect, and neither could be counted on as thee Yankees' shortstop of the future.
That didn't stop Ken Rosenthal from speculating that the Yankees might benefit from moving Derek Jeter off of shortstop a la Michael Young in Texas. Rosenthal didn't mind the fact that there aren't many similarities between the two situations.
Well, a few things happened in 2009. Ramiro Pena surprisingly broke camp with the major league team and did an admirable job filling in when needed. His defense is his only tool that stands out, but it really stands out. Meanwhile, Jeter put up monster numbers and had a strong case for MVP as he improved his defense and put together a monster offensive season leading off for the Yankees.
Down in the minors, Eduardo Nunez "broke out" with 9 HR, 19 SB, and a .322/.349/.433 batting line. The average line in the Eastern League was .258/.322/.385, which Nunez handily topped. I calculate an Eastern League OPS+ of 111 for Nunez in '09. As a 22 year old in the pitcher friendly Double-A Trenton, this impressed a lot of people, including the Yankees organization. They protected him from the Rule 5 draft by adding him to the 40-man roster, which suggests that they believe he could have stuck with a major league team for the entire 2010 season.
Being a touted prospect is nothing new for Nunez. In 2006, Baseball America ranked him as the Yankees' sixth best prospect, albeit amidst a very weak farm system. When I left him off my top 30 prospects this offseason, I received a lot of criticism for it but stood by my stance. Now that the season is over, I've obviously been reading more about prospects and I have learned more about Nunez.
Right now, I think most would agree with me that his defense just isn't that good. His range may be above average, but he apparently has footwork issues. His throwing arm is tremendous, and that's probably his biggest standout tool. I've heard that watching him play defense every day in 2009 wasn't pleasant, and TotalZone agrees, saying he would have cost the team 14 runs on defense had he played 150 games. Before the 2009 season, I had even heard some suggest that the Yankees try him on the mound because of his strong arm and the fact that he hadn't been able to do much as hitter or fielder.
Then 2009 happened, and the most common praise I've heard for Nunez goes something like, "At just 22, he hit .322 in AA and hit 9 home runs as a shortstop!" Now, most of the people reading probably know that I don't put too much weight into batting average, and this case shows exactly why. In 2008, Nunez hit .271, so his average increased over fifty points.
Most people automatically think that the player must have made serious improvements because of an increase in batting average, but that is not always the case. When a player has such a significant increase in batting average, the real response should be asking the question: Why?
Here's my answer to that question. Over the course of his career, Nunez has put together a career BABIP(batting average on balls in play) of .300, which is exactly league average. In 2009, his BABIP was .352, which sounds flukey at first, but for a speedy guy like Nunez, it doesn't have to be. That's what an xBABIP calculator is for.
When you plug in Nunez's numbers, you come out with an xBABIP of--no surprise here-- .300 on the dot. Then, you can use that xBABIP to neutralize a batting line and take all luck out of the equation. After doing this, Nunez's line comes out to .275/.302/.385, which isn't very impressive and is a below league-average line.
I haven't seen this argument made against Nunez, and I think it's one that has a lot of merit. I expect people to argue that Nunez is a young shortstop with power, but I don't see it. He may have some power potential, but he certainly doesn't have power right now. Since '05, he's posted ISO rates of .114, .094, .055, .112, and .111, showing no signs of improvement.
Whether or not Eduardo Nunez has all the tools in the world, he remains the same unheralded player he was in 2008. His walk, strikeout, ISO, and line drive rates all remained identical. No one was praising him after his 2008 season, and I'm not sure anyone should be touting him now.
This criticism isn't solely directed at Nunez; I'm just using him as an example, as there are always players who post seasons like this and they continue to show why batting average can't be relied on. Hopefully Nunez is the outlier here, but I wouldn't predict him to be.