Elvis Andrus and Eduardo Nunez: Buying the Breakouts

In fantasy auction leagues, among shortstops, many in the top- and middle-tier are either extremely pricey, or risky, or both. There are important question marks about some of the players that should give owners pause before making hefty financial commitments: Can we trust less than a full season of data on Trea Turner and Aledmys Diaz? Are Brad Miller and Jonathan Villar really worth their hefty price tags? Is Troy Tulowitzki just OK now, and can he stay healthy? Is this the year Addison Russell breaks out offensively?

If you don’t want to spend a fortune on one of the very best shortstops, it may be worth considering some of the names at the bottom. Among those are two shortstops who quietly had breakout campaigns in 2016.

Elvis Andrus has had a very strange career. He burst onto the scene as a 20-year-old rookie in 2009, and helped the Rangers win back-to-back American League pennants in 2010 and 2011. Andrus’ elite defense and contact skills earned him an 8-year, $120M contract with Texas in 2013, despite the fact that at the time of the signing Andrus had just an 87 wRC+ and .314 wOBA in his career. After he signed the contract, Andrus had just a 78 wRC+ and .292 wOBA from April 2013 through the end of the 2015 season.

However, in 2016, things changed in a big way. Andrus batted .302/.362/.439 with a 112 wRC+ and .344 wOBA. It was his first wRC+ above 97 and his first slugging percentage above .378. His .136 ISO was also a career high, easily surpassing his previous high mark of .099. The following tables help explain Andrus’ breakthrough season:

Elvis Andrus 2009-15 vs. 2016 Stats
2009-15 4635 .270 .331 .347 .077 7.8% 13.2% .310 .304 83
2016 568 .302 .362 .439 .136 8.3% 12.3% .333 .344 112

Elvis Andrus 2009-15 vs. 2016 Batted Ball
Season PA LD% GB% FB% GB/FB HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
’09-15 4635 21.3% 55.9% 22.8% 2.4 3.4% 35.4% 37.4% 27.3% 18.4% 58.5% 23.1%
2016 568 23.8% 47.7% 28.5% 1.7 6.3% 42.7% 34.7% 22.6% 17.7% 55.3% 27.1%

As you can see, Andrus has undergone some major changes in his batted ball profile as of late (many of these changes actually first showed up in 2015). Andrus has started pulling the ball more, and hitting more fly balls. He’s also going to the opposite field less and hitting fewer grounders. Indeed, compared to his career averages, in 2016 Andrus hit 8.2% fewer ground balls, 5.7% more fly balls, and 2.5% more line drives. He pulled the ball 7.3% more often and went to the opposite field 4.7% less often.

Steamer projects a 91 wRC+ and .314 wOBA from Andrus in 2017, both numbers better than his career averages. In other words, Steamer buys into the breakout — to an extent. The FANS (9) are more optimistic, predicting a 100 wRC+ and .327 wOBA.

Andrus’ track record of being a below-average hitter, and the fact that he’s currently dealing with a tight groin (that only affects his defense), make him an intriguing fantasy option in 2017. His breakout campaign went largely unnoticed, and many people probably assume it was a fluke. However, as the data show, Andrus has undergone real batted ball changes, so he seems like a worthy gamble at the cheap price he’s likely to command (again, talking about auction leagues here). Even if he can’t replicate his breakout numbers, Andrus should be a near-league-average hitter as a shortstop who’s averaged 155.6 games played over the last five years and who plays half his games in a very hitter friendly environment. He’s worth a serious look at a low price.

Another shortstop who had an under-the-radar good season was Eduardo Nunez. Nunez was the Twins’ primary shortstop in 2016, and he played well enough make his first All-Star team. The Twins sold high, dealing Nunez to the Giants for Adalberto Mejia in July. It says a lot that the San Francisco front office felt comfortable enough with Nunez’s abilities to trade away fan favorite and 2015 Rookie of the Year runner-up Matt Duffy for Matt Moore shortly after acquiring Nunez. Now that the dust has settled, it’s clear that Nunez has made some real improvements since 2014:

Eduardo Nunez 2010-14 vs. 2015-16 Stats
2010-14 1040 .264 .305 .380 .116 5.4% 12.8% .291 .300 85
2015-16 798 .286 .326 .432 .146 5.1% 14.7% .314 .325 103

Eduardo Nunez 2010-14 vs. 2015-16 Batted Ball
Season PA FB% GB/FB IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
2010-14 1040 34.0% 1.4 21.1% 5.0% 39.1% 35.5% 25.4% 26.0% 49.5% 24.5%
2015-16 798 32.1% 1.6 13.1% 10.1% 36.7% 34.1% 29.2% 21.0% 52.0% 27.0%

As was the case with Andrus, Nunez’s batted ball profile has changed as of late. From 2010 to 2014, Nunez led all of baseball in infield fly ball percentage (min. 1000 plate appearances). As the table shows, an astonishing 21.1% of his fly balls were infield popups — by far the highest percentage in baseball (Vernon Wells was next at 18.5%). What’s more, from 2002 (when infield fly ball percentage was first tracked) to 2014, with a minimum of 1000 plate appearances, only Eric Byrnes (22.9%) had a higher infield fly ball percentage than Nunez (21.1%).

Mercifully, over the last two seasons, Nunez has managed to trim this problematic rate by 8%. Meanwhile, he’s hitting fly balls at roughly the same rate, and homering on his fly balls twice as often as before. Also of note, Nunez has reduced his soft-hit rate and increased his medium- and hard-hit rates, and he’s pulling the ball less and going to the opposite field more.

Nunez is in line to be the Giants’ primary third baseman in 2017; he’s not expected to platoon with Conor Gillaspie or anyone else. Giants manager Bruce Bochy has indicated that Nunez may bat second in the lineup. Thanks to his time with the Twins, Nunez is shortstop-eligible this season, and he will likely maintain that eligibility next season because he should be Brandon Crawford’s primary backup in 2017.

Nunez had a sub-par career before 2015, so many fantasy owners probably aren’t ready to fully embrace that his last 800 plate appearances are legitimate. However, like Andrus, Nunez has undergone intriguing changes to his batted ball profile and is a compelling fantasy shortstop option in 2017.

If you’re not ready to break the bank on one of the very best shortstops, consider Nunez and Andrus, at least as backups. While they may come with risk and uncertainty, they’ll be well worth the low price they’re expected to command if they manage to even come close to repeating the promising trends they quietly exhibited last year.

Ben Kaspick is the host Locked On Giants, a daily podcast focused on the San Francisco Giants. He began writing for FanGraphs' RotoGraphs in 2016, and also contributes for SB Nation's Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter @BenKaspick.

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Trey Baughn

Good call on Andrus. I totally missed this 2016 mini-breakout. He might be someone to watch in 2017. Still only 28 y/o.