Commentary

No more defending Eduardo Nunez

In haste to find their next SS, maybe Yanks saw more in Nunez than was actually there

Updated: September 8, 2011, 9:32 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees must really love Eduardo Nunez's bat. In fact, that has got to be the only reason why they put up with Eduardo Nunez's glove.

Nunez, who made three errors to cost the Yankees a game in Detroit back in May, committed two more on Wednesday afternoon at Yankee Stadium to cost the Yankees a game against the Orioles.

Nunez's second error, a straight-up boot of a routine grounder off the bat of Matt Angle in the 11th inning, led directly to the winning run in Baltimore's 5-4 victory.

That gave Nunez a total of 18 errors in 213 total chances at third base and shortstop, which projects to a staggeringly bad season if he were an everyday player.

Derek Jeter, for instance, a widely maligned shortstop whose range is supposedly limited to roughly the width of his stance, handled 553 chances last season and made just six errors. Given the same number of chances, Nunez would be on pace to make 47 errors this season.

But wait, it gets worse. Not only does Nunez not have Jeter's hands or arm; according to at least one website, he doesn't even have Jeter's range. According to statistics compiled by MLB.com, Jeter's range factor is 3.45; Nunez's is 2.80. And Nunez, of course, is 13 years younger than the 37-year-old Jeter.

And shortstop, where Nunez committed both his errors on Wednesday and easily could have wound up with a third, is the position where he feels most comfortable.

The numbers are similarly bad when Nunez plays third; he has nine errors in 73 chances this season, with a minuscule range factor of 1.76.

Compare that with Alex Rodriguez, who despite being 12 years older than Nunez and a converted shortstop coming off hip and knee surgeries, has just five errors in 202 chances with a range factor of 2.80. Last year, A-Rod committed seven errors in 292 chances; the way Nunez has played this year, that would translate to 24 errors.

Eduardo Nunez
Jerry Lai/US PresswireEduardo Nunez's baserunning hasn't been so hot, either.

Clearly, defense is not a strong suit for Nunez. In fact, it is a glaring weakness.

And yet, the Yankees continue to defend the defensively challenged. When Nunez was throwing the ball early in the season as a third baseman, Joe Girardi said it was because he was really a shortstop. When he began booting balls as a shortstop, it was because he was being moved around so much.

And -- the best of all -- when Nunez committed an error against the Cubs back in June, Girardi ascribed it to his being unfamiliar with the infield at Wrigley Field, a park only three other Yankees had ever played in, and that was back in 2003.

So obviously there is something the Yankees love about Eduardo Nunez. By all accounts, he is a diligent worker, and is soft-spoken and polite in the clubhouse. Girardi has said he thinks Nunez brings fire and enthusiasm to his aging lineup, and he is probably right. And his bat and legs at times have shown signs of life, although he has also displayed a penchant for getting picked off.

But the numbers don't bear out the belief that, at this point, Eduardo Nunez is much of an offensive force, either. After his 0-for-4 in the leadoff spot -- Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Robbie Cano, Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson were not in the starting lineup following Tuesday night's all-nighter -- he is batting .262 with four home runs and 29 RBIs. His on-base percentage, .308, is the lowest of anyone on the team with the exception of Ramiro Pena. And outside of Pena, only Francisco Cervelli has a lower slugging percentage than Nunez's .375.

And yet, the Yankees continue to treat Nunez as if he were the second coming of Jeter, or Jesus Montero for that matter.

Or maybe the problem is simply, in their haste to find Jeter's replacement, Cashman and Girardi saw more in Nunez than was actually there.

After the game, won when Girardi's strategy of walking Nick Markakis in order to strike out Mark Reynolds backfired when Reynolds jumped on a first-pitch slider from Hector Noesi, singling in Angle, it was Alex Rodriguez's turn to play defense for Nunez.

"If I was Nunie, I wouldn't worry about it too much," Rodriguez said. "Literally, you take today and put an X through it and you throw it away. Because I don't care if it was Ozzie Smith in his prime out there today. Nunie didn't have a chance."

A-Rod's rationale was that the infield was wet from the rains that soaked the ballpark for two straight days, and in truth, Nunez's two errors were only one-third of the day's total. The Orioles made two of their own. Rookie call-up Brandon Laird, playing first in place of Teixeira, had one, as did the ordinarily brilliant Gardner, who came into left as a defensive replacement for Andruw Jones in the ninth.

Plus, A.J. Burnett made a boneheaded play on what should have been a double play in the third, inexplicably stepping over, but not on, first base after a high throw from -- who else? -- Nunez. That runner wound up scoring on Nolan Reimold's home run.

And Nunez and A-Rod performed their own burlesque routine with a pop fly to the infield that both called but neither caught, a play both Nunez and Rodriguez agreed was A-Rod's fault.

"I was playing very deep and I thought he had it, but he told me, 'Nunie, you take it,'" Nunez said. "But with the wind, it was very hard."

"It's definitely a play that needed to be made," Rodriguez said. "If I had to do it again I would have taken control and made that play, taken charge. The wind brought it in a little bit, but there's no excuses. That ball had to be caught."

Just a few hours after Girardi had praised the Yankee Stadium grounds crew for keeping the field playable during Tuesday night's deluge, Rodriguez used the condition of the field as the reason for Nunez's reversion to earlier misdeeds.

"It was disgusting," he said of the infield. "What do you expect under these type of conditions? It was terrible, as bad as I've ever seen."

And he went out of his way to find a reason to praise Nunez. "He put down a very nice bunt," A-Rod said, referring to a seventh-inning sacrifice that moved Granderson, who hit for Pena, to third, where he was stranded when Russell Martin struck out and Nick Swisher grounded out.

The bottom line, as Girardi loves to say, is that the Orioles did not take this one so much as the Yankees handed it to them.

"We gave them a lot of their runs today and that's why we lost this game," the manager said. "We didn't catch a popup, we didn't turn a double play, we had some other errors. That's what cost us the game."

But when asked specifically about Nunez, Girardi played much better defense than his backup shortstop did.

"His defense overall has been pretty good, as of late," Girardi said. "He's cut down on his errors recently. They have definitely slowed down. He just had a tough day today, is all."

To the 18 E's credited to Eduardo Nunez so far this year, add one more E -- this one charged to his manager and teammates.

It stands for Excuses.

•••

The Yankees wasted an OK performance by Burnett, who worked one batter into the seventh inning, allowing four runs on seven hits. As a result, the six-man rotation lives, at least for now. ... Rodriguez doubled in two runs in the first inning with a shot that landed on the warning track in center. Montero continued his hot start with a single off the wall in right that drove in two runs to tie the game in the fourth. After that, the Yankees managed just four hits the rest of the way. ... David Robertson was overpowering, striking out the side in the eighth inning. ... Yankees travel to Baltimore for a make-up game on Thursday afternoon, the beginning of a 10-game, 11 day, four-city road trip that will also take them to Los Angeles, Seattle and Toronto. Ivan Nova (15-4, 3.89) faces RHP Alfredo Simon (4-8, 4.64) at Camden Yards on Thursday, first pitch at 1:05 p.m.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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