Thursday, August 18, 2005

Pujols, Edmonds, and....Nunez

Word is that Scott Rolen's chances of playing again this year are becoming more and more slim every day. Not that this is exactly shocking, mind you - I've felt all along as if the Cardinals probably can't count on more than two out of four of their current injured players (Rolen, Walker, Sanders, and Molina) contributing this post-season. But it still hurts to hear Jocketty himself start to incinuate as much.

Which, of course, leaves the Cardinals with the options of Abraham Nunez, John Mabry, and Scott Seabol manning the hot corner the rest of the year. I thought I'd spend some time today focusing on the guy that has been (and probably will continue to) getting the most time at 3rd base, in Abraham Nunez.

When the Cardinals invited Nunez to camp last off-season, I wasn't excited nor worried about his inclusion. I personally saw him as the 2005 version of Hector Luna (without a promising future) - a player who wouldn't hit much, but could give players days off in the infield. Nunez had the added benefit of solid defense, plus switch hitting capability. All in all, kind of a ho hum, 25th man on the bench.

Prior to 2005, Nunez had spent 8 years in the major leagues. Coming up with the Pirates at the age of 21, Nunez basically spent his entire career as a backup middle infielder, never playing more than 118 games in a season, or getting more than 311 at-bats. His career hitting line before this year was .238/.306/.316 with an OPS+ of 62. As in, he has been 38% worse than an average major league hitter over his career. He had career season highs of 4 home runs, a .262 batting average, a .344 OBP, and a .375 SLG. Note that his .344 OBP came over just 52 at-bats in 1998, and that his 2nd best season was a .311 mark. Similarly, his .375 SLG season was over just 40 at-bats in 1997, but that he posted a similar SLG of .357 in 2003.

Defensively, Nunez spent most of his time at shortstop (229 games, 810 innings) and 2nd base (226 games, 1395.1 innings). His MLB experience at 3rd base consisted of 8 games and 23.1 innings prior to this year. The defense he displayed at short and 2nd were basically league average in relation to fielding percentage and range factor, while his limited duty at 3rd base wasn't pretty. Of course, we all knew that he would likely play 3rd base this year under La Russa, which was fine with me. In fact, I suspect that a healthy Rolen would have resulted in Nunez seeing time in the outfield as well this year. But I digress.

Enter 2005. Due to the unfortunate health of Scott Rolen, Nunez has played a lot of 3rd base this year. So far? He's answered the bill and then some.

Offensively, Nunez has already set career highs in runs scored (45), hits (84), home runs (5), RBI (36), and walks (29), despite only having played in 98 games and getting 278 at-bats. What's more, if the season finished today, he would eclipse his previous season highs in batting average (.304), OBP (.370), SLG (.409), and OPS (.779). Granted, he's been cold lately (547 OPS in August), but his increased walk rates and power are still something to be encouraged about.

Defensively, Nunez has shined at 3rd. I'm not going to bother trying to compare Nunez to every 3rd baseman in baseball, but I will compare him to a pretty ok fielder in St. Louis - Scott Rolen. Looking at defensive stats from just this year, you'll see that Nunez actually has a slightly higher range factor than Rolen. Basically, Nunez (this year) has been better at making more putouts than Scott, while having fewer assists. Intuitively, that makes since with the cannon Rolen has. To show you what I mean, here are the number of putouts and assists per 9 innings at 3rd base for both players this season.


Rolen - .41
Nunez - .80


Rolen - 2.78
Nunez - 2.59

To top that off, Nunez has a slightly better fielding percentage this year as well. In other words, he's not hurting the team with his glove.


As you can tell by this post, I didn't really have anything in particular to say about Nunez starting over Rolen, other than to write down some thoughts I was having. Defensively, Rolen would be preferred over Nunez from a gut feel. In 2005, however, it's not really cut and dry that he would be head and shoulders above Nunez.

Offensively, of course, a healthy Scott Rolen would be much, much preferred over Abraham Nunez, no matter how well he's playing. However, we've never really seen a healthy Rolen this year, so once again - that's not a cut and dry argument.

Nunez has obviously been playing better than ever this year. To be honest, I keep expecting it to end - and his August splits may be an indication that the party is in fact starting to end. (Or, he could just be tired of playing from the heat.) Whatever the case, there are signs (walk rate, for example) that Nunez is doing things a little differently this year. He doesn't have to be a superstar in this lineup to help the team win. If he can maintain a .350 OBP in the playoffs - thus not hurting the team as an automatic out - and provide solid defense, then the team can still win it all.


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