After cutting his strike-out rate considerably in 2015, Renato Nunez saw his plate discipline backslide in 2016. Can he increase his contact rate in 2017 and get back to the big leagues?
Since Nunez joined the Oakland A’s as a teenager in 2011, the native of Venezuela has been one of the organization’s top hitting prospects. Nunez’s batting average hasn’t always reflected his raw hitting ability, but there isn’t a hitter in the A’s organization who has quicker wrists and a more powerful swing than the 22-year-old. One thing that has kept Nunez from fully realizing his potential, however, has been a tendency to try to pull every pitch out of the ballpark. When Nunez falls into that pattern, he struggles. That was something that plagued him in 2016, which was his worst statistical season of his career.
Renato Nunez Stats
Despite his struggles in 2016 – his first season at the Triple-A level – Nunez still managed to finish second in the A’s organization with 23 homers and slug a respectable .412. However, he hit only .228, in large part because his plate discipline evaporated as he chased pitches he thought he could drive. Nunez’s K-rate climbed from 15.9% with Midland in 2015 to 21.4% with Nashville in 2016. Nunez also saw his walk rate fall a full percentage point from 6.7% to 5.7%. Perhaps most telling was the fact that he popped out 54 times, which was a significant factor in his career-worst .247 BABIP. He finished the season with a .228/.278/.412 line. Nunez did earn a September call-up and collected two hits in 15 at-bats.
A’s Assistant General Manager Billy Owens believes that with time Nunez will find an approach he can stick to day-in and day-out.
“Sometimes he gets a little homer-happy and pull-happy. I see in his development, he had 19 homers in Beloit and his average dipped towards the end of the year trying to get that 20th homer. In Stockton, he had 29 homers and – same thing – towards the end of the year, he sort of went for the homer and his average suffered towards the end. Last year, he wasn’t as close to that milestone number and he hit for a higher season average and had a tremendous playoff in Double-A [.407 BA in seven games],” Owens said. “[In 2016], the average is down, but he is still a hitter first and foremost. He has a gorgeous swing. He will eventually be able to use the whole field. The power is obvious.”
For the first time in his career, Nunez struggled against southpaws. He hit only .198 against lefties after hitting .340 against them in 2015. Sounds’ hitting coach Eric Martins says that Nunez understands what he needs to do to improve.
“He’s got all of the talent in the world. He just needs to work on his plate discipline and his aggressiveness,” Martins said. “He went through a phase last year when he was struggling against left-handed pitching. I said to him, ‘Renato, what do we do in Oakland? We platoon. If you can’t hit left-handed pitching, what role will you have on the team?’ Renato is really smart. You have to almost put things in front of him so he can see it for him to make adjustments. You can talk to him forever, but when you put something in front of him to show him what needs to be fixed, he makes it a point to work on it. I still believe that Renato can be one of the most feared hitters around. He has the ability to hit for average and power. We have seen it in glimpses that he can do both. He’s just at that stage where he is 21-22 and he has to mature a little bit more and stick to an approach.”
Nunez was able to shake-off his rough 2016 minor league season with an outstanding Venezuelan Winter League campaign. In 45 VWL games, Nunez hit .304/.389/.542 with 11 homers and 21 walks. Winter league numbers don’t necessarily translate into anything meaningful for the next season, but it was positive to see Nunez re-discover his stroke and find success for an extended period.
One of the biggest questions surrounding Nunez going into the 2017 season is where he will play in the field. Nunez has been a third baseman for most of his professional career. He has shown improvement at the hot corner over the past two years, but with Matt Chapman and Ryon Healy ahead of him at third, Nunez isn’t likely to get regular playing time there in 2017. Nunez has played a little first base, but the A’s are pretty well stacked at that position, as well. Designated Hitter will always been an option, of course, but Nunez could find a home in left field, a position he started to see time at towards the end of the year. Nunez isn’t a particularly gifted runner, but he has some arm strength and showed a willingness to work at the position last year.
“With Matt Chapman playing in Nashville now, it’s kind of a natural progression to see if Renato can handle the left field position. So far, so good,” Owens said in late August. “Getting the game reports every night, it seems like he hasn’t been tentative out there. He’s caught the balls in his jurisdiction. Like anything, there will be a learning curve going forward but having another club in your golf bag will only help his chances to succeed at the next level.”
Nunez has used two option years, so it is likely that the A’s will want to get a good look at him at some point in the big leagues to see if he is ready to stick longterm in 2018, when he is out-of-options. If Nunez can tighten up his approach at the plate, he has a chance to be as fearsome a hitter in the middle of the line-up as any player in the A’s system. Nunez has some work to do, but he is only entering his age-23 season and has time for his approach to mature.
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