First base prospect Malcom Nuñez made a notable adjustment in his game last year, significantly helping his overall performance on the season.
The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Malcom Nuñez this past year from the St. Louis Cardinals. He and right-hander Johan Oviedo made their way over in the José Quintana trade. Nunez made his pro debut back in 2018, and after a scorching hot start to his pro career in which he batted for an OPS over twelve hundred at 1.272 and wRC+ over 200 at 238, Nuñez saw his overall production take a massive step backward in 2019 and 2021.
Between the two seasons, Nuñez batted just .254/.326/.372. Although he registered a solid 8.4% walk rate and 19.7% strikeout rate, Nunez was overall a below-average batter. Despite his impressive strength, he hit for zero power, coming to just a .119 isolated slugging percentage. His plate discipline helped him to a semi-respectable .321 wOBA, but once adjusting for the park and league factors, he had just a 94 wRC+.
However, things changed in 2022 for Nuñez. Through 493 plate appearances, the first base prospect batted .262/.357/.466. Nunez added nearly one hundred points to his ISO, raising it to .204. He also upped his walk rate to 14% while keeping a near-identical strikeout rate of 20.8%. He finished the year with a .370 wOBA and 117 wRC+, though this was after a slow start. Nuñez had just a 77 wRC+ at the end of May but then went on a hot streak.
From the start of June through the end of the year, Nuñez slashed .294/.380/.533 with a .396 wOBA and 136 wRC+. Although he had a striekout rate of 22%, he still walked at a pace of just over 12% at 12.2%. Even better was his power output. Nuñez crushed 20 of the 23 home runs he hit all year in this stretch while managing a .239 isolated slugging percentage. Nuñez also posted a strong .859 OPS, .378 wOBA, and 134 wRC+ after the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired him. So how did Nunez go from a guy whose ISO was a far cry from even .150 to well above .200?
Nuñez upped his fly ball rate from 30.3% in 2019-2021 to 33.7% this past season. He also lowered his ground ball rate from just over 50% at 50.6% to 47.3%. The differences in his swing from 2021 to 2022 are very noticeable. The first video was from August 2021, while the second one is from nearly a year later to the date:
Nuñez has shortened up his leg-kick, making it more of a toe-tap motion than full-on raising his leg. He also keeps the bat up in his stance more, which could help him get more lift. He also is lower in his stance, keeping his knees more bent. This could also help Nuñez create more lift in his swing, getting under the ball more often.
The issue for Nuñez has never been the raw power. According to Prospects Live, Nuñez has plus raw power in their 2020 write-up on the infield prospect. FanGraphs also gives Nuñez a 55 grade for his raw power attribute. However, as Prospects Live stated, “groundballs are killing his ability to manifest that [power] in his game.”
This isn’t a situation like Diego Castillo's either. Like Nuñez, Castillo had struggled in prior seasons to lift the ball. Then in 2021, Castillo started to show more of an ability to get the ball in the air. However, Castillo was never lauded for his raw power like Nuñez. FanGraphs considered Castillo’s raw power ability as just a 40-grade tool compared to Nuñez’s 55. The difference is well below average and above average.
Nuñez needs to keep making these adjustments going forward. He’s a first base/designated hitter-or-bust kind of prospect, which makes him a high-risk prospect. He needs to hit to be successful because he doesn’t provide very much defensive value, much less to a position where offense is typically second to defense.