Listen to Renato Núñez recount the decade he’s spent in professional baseball, and there’s something that comes up at every spot: learning.
If he weren’t playing baseball — which for him is a complete hypothetical, considering he began to get noticed before he was a teenager — he said he might have pursued medicine or engineering like many of his family members at home in Venezuela
As it is, his own higher education has come at the ballpark, where after his first major league season Núñez dove back into his at-bats to try and, again, learn how to steady his production for the Orioles and take himself to the next level.
“The good at-bats, the bad at-bats, just watching whatever they were throwing me,” Núñez said. “Some days, I was watching my swing and what I was thinking that day, putting me in the same situation, trying to see everything. Hopefully, I can remember some of that and have it help me.”
So far, that learning has paid off with five home runs, the second most in the American League, and a .973 OPS in 15 games. That production seems owed to a focused approach at the plate in which Núñez is swinging at pitches below the strike zone less often, attacking balls in the middle and elevated near his hands that he can drive in the air and chasing fewer pitches outside the strike zone.
It’s just the latest improvement from a player who hasn’t settled at any stage of his life, baseball or otherwise.
He grew up learning a love of Italian food from his mother and baseball from his father. He loved going to the beach, about 20 minutes away from where he grew up, but also fell in love with the game when he went to see their local Venezuelan winter league team, Navegantes del Magallanes, play as he was growing up.
He learned the routines of everyday baseball at the Oakland Athletics’ academy in the Dominican Republic, and after playing his way stateside learned that he really had a chance when he hit 29 home runs in his age-20 season at High-A Visalia.
“That was like the part when I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got a shot in this game,‘” Núñez said. “‘I’ve got a shot of playing baseball.’ It was a great year.”
Before long, he learned that minor league power wasn’t going to guarantee a major league future — he hit 55 home runs in two Triple-A seasons with the Athletics in 2016 and 2017 but couldn’t break into the big league lineup.
“That’s baseball,” he said. “That’s the way it happens sometimes. The spot that you’re looking for or the position you play, somebody is playing good there. You cannot do anything with that. You’ve just got to keep working, keep learning, and I feel like that’s what I do.”
It wasn’t until the Orioles claimed him on waivers in 2018 and eventually brought him up to Camden Yards as the team’s everyday third baseman after Manny Machado was traded that he got that real chance.
He remembers a pregame meeting after his call-up with manager Buck Showalter in which he was told to go out there and show what he can do without worrying about losing playing time. He’s been a fixture in the lineup ever since.
Núñez has more home runs (43) than any Orioles hitter besides Trey Mancini since he came to the Orioles, including two this year in consecutive games. The ball flying off his bat at this stage in the season is a good sign for Núñez, who has been quite streaky in both good and bad ways and hoped the offseason work would change that.
It won’t be the good stretches that determine that. It will be the days that follow the rough ones. In 2019, Núñez had 16 different stretches of two or more hitless games. Five of those were three games or more.
Pulling himself out of those ruts were part of the reason he spent the offseason the way he did. It will help the Orioles’ too, as Núñez hit .311 with a .991 OPS in wins last year and .208 with a .649 OPS in losses. Those patterns are emerging in 2020. He’d like to steady himself for the sake of the team as well.
“I put in a lot of work,” Núñez said. “I watched a lot of my [at-bats] last year, the bad ones and the good ones, and kind of figured out what I can do to not have that many at-bats without getting a hit. I’ll be ready.”