Over its 158-year history, Baker University in Kansas has produced exactly two major leaguers: Zip Zabel in 1911, and Vidal Nuno. There was another Zip in baseball in 1914; so far, ours is the only Vidal.
Vidal Nuño is often the forgotten man in a bullpen full of big personalities and blazing fastballs, even though he’s the only member of the bullpen who’s been here since the beginning of the season without going on the DL. At 44 innings, Nuño has pitched the most innings of any reliever still with the team not named Steve Cishek. The departure of Mike Montgomery seemed to open a spot for Nuño as the lefty specialist, except so far in 2016, lefties are actually outhitting righties when facing Nuño: 262/.297/.441 vs. 252/.297/.432. For contrast, in 2015, LHBs slashed .205/.258/.304 against him, while righties feasted on him to the tune of .274/.329/.508. In 2014, the split was equally extreme: .188/.268/.314 for lefties vs. .269/.322/.472 for righties. So what’s changed for Nuño?
Based off the numbers, not that much. Since moving into a (mostly) full-time relief role (get well soon Adrian Sampson), Nuño’s strikeouts are up and his walks are down, which is good biz. FIP suggests his tidy ERA of 2.86 is artificially low, but sub-four isn’t terrible, and his 5.25 K/BB ratio is a career high by a healthy margin. Nuño is still susceptible to the longball, but overall, the reliever life seems to suit him. While a full-time relief role doesn’t seem to translate to a significant velocity upgrade for Nuño—blood, stone, etc.—his starter’s complement of pitches is a boon, and with some slight tweaks to his pitch arsenal, he’s seen an uptick in strikeouts. Last year he had more strikeouts in his partial year with Seattle (62) than in his 2014 campaign with the Yankees (60).
Per Brooks, you can see the big red spike in the last few months representing Nuño’s increased use of his slider, a trend that goes back to 2015 and coincides with his arrival with the Mariners. The slider and the fastball are almost always inversely related; as one increases, the other decreases, and vice-versa. Per an interview with Nuño airing on Mariners All-Access, he spent the past off-season working on his changeup, but that pitch has shown a very gradual increase in usage, peaking in June and then falling off sharply more recently. Instead, it’s the slider Nuño has leaned on, either as an out pitch or simply when falling behind batters with his weaker fastball. None of Nuño’s pitches are overwhelming, but he can mix and match from his arsenal in ways that keep batters guessing and occasionally make them look very silly:
Vidal Nuño is the forgotten man of the Mariners bullpen, dutifully eating innings and limiting damage, the closest thing to a punched timeclock you can have as a professional baseball player. He wasn’t the star in his trade to Seattle, even though he’s the one who remained with the team. He’s the name most people forget when trying to remember who we have in our bullpen these days, even though he’s been here since the start. He doesn’t have social media, probably as a result of playing in the fishbowl known as Yankee Stadium. As research for this article, I listened to a few minutes of a Barstool podcast (time I’m still trying to get back) from a few years ago, where the speaker describes going to a bar across from Yankee Stadium and seeing Vidal Nuño sitting alone in the corner of the bar, wedged between a speaker and a mop bucket, eating a wrap sandwich. The Barstool (who might actually be a sentient barstool) describes this encounter with much glee, bragging about going up to Nuño and harassing him for giving up some home runs in the game—he makes a point to note how much taller and bigger and better dressed he is than Nuño—and punctuates his story with an outraged “wrap sandwich!” multiple times. But to me there’s something tremendously affecting about imagining this scene, Nuño sitting at the bar by himself, a guy who had a bad day at work just trying to have a sandwich. The Mariners bullpen is a good microcosm of baseball at large: there are phenoms, redemption stories, flamethrowers, injury battles, and guys you wish you could go have a beer with. Then there’s Nuño: quiet, steady, ordinary as a pencil. Each team probably has someone like him, but we have the only Vidal.