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June 24, 2011

Fantasy Beat

The Underappreciated Leo Nunez

by Jason Collette

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I have been writing here long enough for you to be my familiar with my disdain for closers. It is a position that I habitually invest very little in, and it did not help that I won a league two seasons ago with a grand total of 13 saves. In the continual pursuit of that holy grail, I continually look for the bargain closers with skills and take my risk with their upside rather than spend the higher prices for the proven types. After all, 59 different pitchers have already saved at least one game in 2011 while 83 different pitchers did so in 2010. Back in late February, I outlined my strategy in drafting closers, and in that piece, I made reference to Leo Nunez.

If I am late in a draft and looking for another closer, I am more likely to jump in on Leo Nunez because he shows one of the stronger skill sets of the lower ranked closers over someone like Brandon Lyon or Ryan Franklin who are ranked higher but present several areas of caution. I also know that Nunez’s K rate has increased each of the past three seasons.

Nunez did indeed fly under the radar in drafts going 173rd in the 12 team mixed mock draft that I participated in with other pundits in mid-February. Yet, despite the turmoil in Miami, Nunez is tied for second in the league with 20 saves trailing only Huston Street. Over the past 12 months, Nunez has saved 31 of 39 games with a 9.8 strikeout rate, just a 2.9 walk rate, a 0.7 home run rate, a 3.41 ERA, and a 1.26 WHIP, but he continues to get slighted by some fantasy players. Just the other day on Twitter, I got into an exchange with another writer that was recommending Brian Sanches as a pick-up and the exchange went as such:

Him: One player on the Marlins who is not struggling is reliever and perhaps potential closer Brian Sanches. Me: Sanches has more walks than hits allowed. K rate not high enough to offset control risks. Him: Good point, it very well could end up being a lucky start, but for now he's the best the Marlins have had this year. Me: I think Nunez is terribly underrated. 9.3 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, sub 1.0 HR/9..3.05 FIP. Take that all day Him: Good numbers for now, they were even better a few weeks ago, but Nunez has been known to implode after hot starts

If the Marlins were to trade Nunez, then certainly the closer role would be up for discussion, but to compare Nunez and Sanches at this point is just not a fair battle. This season, Nunez has the second best SIERA on the Marlins roster, trailing only Anibal Sanchez at 3.37; Sanchez brings up the rear with a 4.95 SIERA. Nunez tops Sanches in every other metric, across the board, save batting average where Sanches holds a .236 to .192 advantage. Sanches has allowed more walks than hits and his current batting average on balls in play sits at .227 compared to the more normal .297 that Nunez currently owns. The one part of the discussion that may hold some water is Nunez’s second half struggles.

SPLIT

IP

ERA

WHIP

K/9

K/BB

1st half

161

3.86

1.22

7.9

2.6

2nd half

165

4.75

1.45

6.9

2.4

If we take a year by year look at Nunez’s second halves, though, the results are a bit more mixed.

SPLIT

IP

ERA

WHIP

K/9

K/BB

2005

24

8.25

1.79

5.6

1.7

2007

44

3.92

1.24

7.6

3.7

2008

27

3.95

1.46

4.0

1.5

2009

31

4.40

1.27

6.8

2.6

2010

28

4.13

1.59

10.8

2.8

Last season stands out like a sore thumb when you look at the 10.8 strikeout rate , the strong strikeout to walk rate, yet a very high WHIP. A peek at his BABIP shows that Nunez had a .387 BABIP after the break last season compared to the .317 career rate he has in 724 second half plate appearances. A look at 2007 and 2009 show better WHIP results, and the chart above shows a bit of Saberhagenmetrics going on with the pattern Nunez has developed in his statistics.

After having trouble with strikeouts and home runs with the Royals, perhaps the insult of being traded straight up for Mike Jacobs woke Nunez up because he has been a different pitcher for the Marlins working as an undervalued fantasy closer. His strikeout rate rose three straight seasons heading into 2011, and the home runs that plagued him in the American League have, for the most part, been swallowed up by Sun Life Stadium. He went for $15 in NL Tout Wars and has returned $5 of profit on that investment so far this season.

Nunez may end up losing his job in 2011, but it won’t be to Brian Sanches. It will be either because the back issue that has popped up every now and then flares up again or Nunez is traded to a contending team so the Marlins can avoid paying Nunez in arbitration; those hearings tend to appreciate mid-tier closers a lot more than fantasy players do.

Jason Collette is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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