TORONTO – Paul Molitor was working with his infielders on their defense before a game last week at Target Field, and when the session was finished, the Twins manager called Eduardo Nunez over. Nunez said he was surprised, but more than gratified, to hear Molitor’s message.
“He said, ‘Look at how much better you’re playing shortstop,’ ” said the 28-year-old Dominican, now splitting time at shortstop with Eduardo Escobar. “Before, people were like, ‘He can hit, he can run, but he doesn’t defend.’ Now I can say, I play defense. For Molitor to say that, after all our work, it makes me happy. We’ve worked hard.”
It was necessary, Molitor said. Nunez, acquired from the Yankees in a trade during the first week of the 2014 season, had been playing three infield positions and even in the outfield — a trend that continued with the Twins — and the lack of focus on his original position was showing. “Your components of infield play are setup, first step, fielding position, exchange and then release. And he’s cleaned up all that pretty well,” Molitor said. “I think there were times when people were hesitant to put him out there defensively. I don’t have any feelings like that.”
Nunez was once known as Derek Jeter’s probable successor with the Yankees. That made his life much harder, Nunez said.
“In New York, people try to say, ‘You’re not Jeter, you’re not good. But that’s a Gold Glove, that’s a Hall of Fame player,” Nunez said. “People don’t see how much I work, don’t see what I can do. They just see I’m not Jeter. When I get to play, I can’t make a mistake. If I make an error but we win the game, it’s like, ‘Ooh, this guy is terrible, he can’t play defense.’
“… So I got here, Molitor was the infield guy last year, he told me, ‘We start over. I know what you’ve been doing in New York, and we’re going to start over right now.’ So we work on my mechanics, we work on my confidence. And now Geno [infield coach Gene Glynn], too, they help me a lot.”
According to the defensive statistics kept by fangraphs.com, he’s gone from a minor liability at the position to an average shortstop. In Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 innings, which attempts to rate overall defense, Nunez has gone from a minus-3.5 last season at shortstop to 13.7 this year. That figure ranks fifth in the majors this year, though Nunez has only a fraction of the playing time of category leader Adeiny Hechavarria of the Marlins (19.1).
Artificial turf has long been known to speed up baseballs, adding topspin that allows batted balls to skip past infielders and bounce over outfielders. But the new FieldTurf installed this season at Rogers Centre is just the opposite, the Twins say.
“It’s real even, real smooth. But it slows the ball down,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “That kind of took me by surprise.”
Molitor said his biggest concern coming to Toronto was keeping his players legs’ fresh, since they’re not used to playing on an artificial surface. The Twins might skip a day’s batting practice while they’re here, he said, to reduce the time spent standing on the turf.
But he, too, was surprised by the way the turf slows down batted balls. “Infielders have to be more aggressive to the ball, because it’s going to knock down the speed, and if you lay back, they’re going to beat balls out or beat double plays,” Molitor said. “Outfielders, maybe change your angles on the ball to keep doubles to singles. It’s different than most turfs we’ve played on.”
Blue Jays suspensions
Major League Baseball suspended Toronto reliever Aaron Sanchez for three games and manager John Gibbons for one for their roles in Sunday’s contentious game with Kansas City. Sanchez appealed and pitched a scoreless eighth inning in Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over the Twins. Gibbons did not, and bench coach DeMarlo Hale served as manager.