CHARLESTON, WV – Everything about Oddy Nunez stands out. His height, his delivery, his knack for getting ground balls. The 20-year-old left-handed pitcher with less than 100 innings pitched in professional ball has been thrown into the fire of the West Virginia starting rotation and has continued to rise above his teammates (both physically and developmentally).
A cursory glance at Nunez’s numbers gives the wrong impression. His 3.68 ERA through eight starts belie his ability to deceive batters and induce grounders. As John Dreker has mentioned multiple times, Nunez has been doomed by shoddy defense in a number of his starts. In fact, 37 percent of the Power’s errors in 2017 have come with Nunez on the mound. This has resulted in four unearned runs and a litany of jams for the young sinkerballer.
Pitching coach Drew Benes is not concerned about this and attributes this trouble to Nunez’s ability to get grounders.
“With sinkerball guys, you get a lot of ground balls and sometimes those find holes, sometimes you don’t catch it,” remarked Benes.
Nunez should be benefiting from the recent call-up of Adrian Valerio, who suffered a broken hand in spring training. For the first month and a half of the season, Trae Arbet manned second base on a regular basis. Arbet has committed six of the Power’s 38 total errors this year, and in 2015 (the last full season he played due to a shoulder injury in 2016), he had a range factor of 4.50.
With Valerio in the lineup, Arbet has moved to third, which Power manager Wyatt Toregas suspects may be a good fit.
“If you look at the errors he’s made this year, it’s been on balls where he has plenty of time,” said Toregas, “and I don’t know what it is. Maybe he’s thinking a little bit too hard. Third base might suit him a little better.”
Valerio and Stephen Alemais will be splitting time at second and shortstop. (Alemais made his first appearance at second base in Nunez’s latest start on May 16.) At second in 2016, Valerio’s range factor was 4.95, meaning we can expect Valerio to make approximately 45 more plays than Arbet would have over the final 100 West Virginia games.
Of course, if (when) the trickle-down shortstop moves happen (Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker block a call-up right now), Alemais will move up to Bradenton while Valerio, only 20 years old, will slide back into his natural position full-time. Hopefully by that point, Arbet’s defense will have improved.
Until that point, though, Nunez will continue to feed grounders to his infield at an impressive rate. After eight starts, he has a 59.3% ground ball rate, and he throws 62 percent of his pitches for strikes. He attacks with his sinker from the get-go, and two-thirds of his first pitches in an at-bat are strikes.
Nunez’s sinker is his weapon of choice for good reason. He has shown excellent control even in his weakest starts. He has not walked more than one batter in any of his 2017 starts.
“When I get in trouble, I use the sinker,” said Nunez. “It dives down on hitters, stays down, causes groundballs. It gets out of jams.”
The sinker has been even more effective this year because Nunez has added about 4-5 MPH to the pitch. He’s a lefty with a big frame (he’s listed at 6′ 5″, but he seems much more imposing and Toregas tossed 6′ 7″ out as a height), and the fact that he retained nearly perfect control with the velocity increase indicates that this improvement is sustainable.
Nunez pairs the sinker with a slider and a changeup. All three pitches in Nunez’s arsenal come from a three-quarters slot, and all three feature a ton of movement. He’s getting more swings and misses this year than in years past. As of May 16, he is just one strikeout shy of his total for 2016 while still 5.1 innings short of his 2016 total.
Toregas praised Nunez’s sinker and suggested some improvements for the slider. “He can afford to tighten it up a little bit, but that’s going to come with experience and throwing it, and throwing it, and throwing it. I think if, at the end of the year, if his slider is tighter, that’ll be really good,” said Toregas.
As for his changeup, Nunez just needs to concentrate on control. Toregas said, “We are a changeup first organization, but his changeup’s pretty good so I’d like him to get to the point where he’s pinpoint with that.”
Benes was similarly complimentary of Nunez’s stuff. “When everything’s working through the zone and down, he’s going to be really tough to hit because everything moves, and it’s all pretty similar,” Benes commented.
One of the things that make Nunez’s pitches especially nasty is his delivery. He uses a three-quarter arm slot and has a very short step to the plate, especially for a pitcher his size.
“He’s got a little bit of funkiness to what he does,” said Benes. “It’s all moving in different directions, and he’s one of those guys that it seems like they don’t see it well, they don’t track it well, and he gets a lot of weak contact.”
Nunez mostly uses the short step to load the back leg and generate power. He also said he thinks it helps control the run game. (This second point has not borne out in 2017. With Nunez pitching, only 17 percent of would-be base stealers have been thrown out, compared with 25 percent with other Power pitchers on the mound.)
While the Power staff has been singing Nunez’s praises in 2017 so far, he still has a substantial amount of work to do to fulfill the hopes of the Pirates organization. Nunez started as a reliever when he joined the DSL at age 18 in 2015, but he missed about a month of the season while Major League Baseball confirmed his age and identity. (He signed a few days before the season started.) Due to the deal, Nunez only made 11 appearances and was limited to 21.2 innings. In short season ball in 2016, he moved to long relief and again made 11 appearances, this time going 34.2 innings.
Because Nunez has had so little experience, and because he is still nearly two years younger than the South Atlantic League average, the Pirates will be limiting his pitches this year. He has worked his way into the starting rotation, but to begin with, they capped him at 60. His first seven starts impressed enough to open the door to 70 pitches.
Nunez’s sixth and seventh start featured him at his peak. Between the two, his line was 7.2 innings, three hits, no runs, 10 strikeouts, and one walk. His eighth start, on May 16, continued his hot streak until he found trouble in the fifth inning. (This was the first time Nunez went into the fifth.) By this point, his pitches were not finding the bottom of the strike zone as effectively, as evidenced by the chart on his last out, a seven-pitch swinging strikeout with men on second and third.
Mike Wallace entered with two outs and runners still on second and third and quickly worked two strikes right down the middle. He tried to get the batter to chase a pair of balls right on the outside edge, but then came back inside where the hitter could lace a two-run single into left field. Those two runs, of course, were attributed to Nunez.
This is just another case of numbers being deceiving when it comes to Oddy Nunez. However, he has done enough to impress both Toregas and Benes in his short time with West Virginia.
“I think his biggest transition piece is trying to build up some type of length to his outing while also monitoring how much he’s throwing because he hasn’t thrown that much before,” Benes said. “That’s a delicate balance that we’re watching closely, but he’s going out every time so far and doing what we’re asking him to do and getting good results from it.”
Toregas concurred, “I’ve liked what I’ve seen from him every single outing.”
Nunez stays humble about his success. “I try to stay positive, keep a positive vibe and good body language. I think that helps me carry over to good pitching,” he said.
But he confirmed that success goes hand in hand with hard work: “I worked really hard this offseason, and the results are obviously showing.”