Nick Punto Day, Pt. 2

As you saw in Part 1, I let some of my friends drop some opinions on our very own Little Nicky Punto. Now, it’s my turn to complete my promise of giving a little extra, just like our little infielder does every single day on the baseball diamond. As recently as 2 years ago, I would call Nick Punto my favorite Twin. Why? Because when I played baseball in high school (and sports in general), I felt that he defined the type of player that I was. I had only average speed, wasn’t a good hitter (consistently, at least…I was good one season, bad the next, but never had any power), wasn’t a good fielder (so I stuck in the outfield), had a poor arm, etc. The only thing I had going for me was my hustle and high baseball IQ. Time for a quick story. I hustled so much, I was once speared by the high school varsity fence during batting practice. I chased after a fly ball, forgot how close I was to the fence, and ended up bent over at the waist, hat and glove askew, stuck on the top of the 3 1/2 foot fence. As my varsity coach said, “Bryz! This is batting practice! You don’t need to give 100 percent!”

However, there’s only so much that hustle and a high baseball IQ will give you,* so I was quickly passed by guys that had better baseball skills, but also fewer smarts on playing the game.** The same was true in basketball, I’d be the guy taking charges and diving out of bounds for loose balls, but I couldn’t drain an open three to save my life. Thus, the likeness to Nick Punto was pretty easy to find.

* Like playing time in 10th grade but not 12th grade, even if the varsity coach likes you. You could probably call my 10th grade coach Ron Gardenhire, although he looked a lot like Mike Scioscia.

** Not to mention a lower IQ in general as well.

Let’s take a trip down a very long memory lane. Back on December 3rd, 2003, the Twins traded LHP Eric Milton to the Philadelphia Phillies for RP Carlos Silva, 2B/SS Nick Punto, and a player to be named later, which eventually became RP Bobby Korecky. 2004 was a bit of a disappointment for him, as he spent the majority of the season on the disabled list. If I recall correctly, one of the injuries was caused by attempting to make a play similar to this…

…except he never picked up the ball, thus he failed to make a throw to 1st, which led to him landing on his shoulder in a rather painful manner. He came back in 2005, and made a decent impression on the team, batting .239. However, 2006 was when he made a name for himself. Designated as the backup infielder for the Twins, he hit an impressive .290 while setting personal bests in just about every offensive category. Although his UZR at 2nd base didn’t rate so well, Punto really performed well at shortstop and especially 3rd base. Even without UZR, the Twins were impressed with Punto’s defense, and he was named the starting 3rd baseman going into the 2007 season, a la Chone Figgins with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Despite the newfound trust and security given to him by Ron Gardenhire, Punto disappointed in 2007. However, despite a terrible .210 batting average, he did set a new career high in walks, fell a single stolen base short of matching his career high of 17, and played the best defense of his career at 3rd and shortstop, according to UZR. It was too bad that he was given 536 plate appearances in the same season that he posted his worst triple slash line (.210/.291/.271), but another positive from ’07 was that his defense still allowed him to be worth 0.7 wins over replacement that season. That’s right, Punto’s career best defense outweighed his career worst offense just enough to make him contribute positive value to the Twins.

In 2008, Nick returned to the level of offense that Twins fans and management were expecting from him the prior season. Frustratingly, it came while he acted as a backup infielder again, so he accumulated over 150 fewer plate appearances than what he had in ’07. Due to the signing of Mike Lamb* and the eventual platoon of Brendan Harris and Brian Buscher, Punto was unable to play his best defensive position. However, he received the bulk of his playing time at shortstop, and once again he did not disappoint. Despite one of the best triple slash lines of his career (.284/.344/.382), Punto was only able to muster 3 more RBI compared to ’07.

* Which I’d like to point out was not a bad signing when it was made.

Although it wasn’t up to the level of the famous contract years of Adrian Beltre (.334/.388/.629, 48 HR) or Gary Matthews, Jr. (.313/.371/.495), Punto was able to garner a 2 year, $8 million contract from the Twins in December of 2008. Honestly, at the time I didn’t think too much about it. Punto had sandwiched two good years around one bad year, so it didn’t seem like such a bad idea to re-sign him, yet the only remaining Piranha made us regret that contract rather fast. On the surface, a .228 batting average is not good at all, but look deeper. Nick reached a career high in walks (61), giving him an OBP only 7 points lower than his ’08 OBP, despite a 56 point difference in batting average. He played his best defensive 2nd base of his career, and his shortstop was still above average, despite dropping off significantly from previous years. Putting everything together, Punto notched a 1.3 WAR in 2009, which you must admit is pretty good (it helps he plays important defensive positions well from a defensive standpoint, by the way). Compare that to Delmon Young, who puts up better offensive numbers but was worth -1.3 WAR last year. Alright, that’s not fair to cherry pick players that play different positions with different expectations, so instead I’ll take Matt Tolbert. He hit .232/.303/.308, which is roughly similar to Punto’s .228/.337/.284. Admittedly, this was in less playing time, but Tolbert only had a -0.2 WAR last year, showing how much of a difference Punto’s on base percentage and defense makes.

So what have we learned? Punto is rather inconsistent, leading to the joke that he has to play well in 2010 because it’s an even number, just like 2006 and 2008, his two best seasons, whereas his two worst came in odd years, 2007 and 2009. He is great defensively, not just due to his highlight reel plays but also because of his range, especially at 3rd and shortstop, and he hustles…to the point that it makes Gardenhire have a man crush on him, and it frustrates and awes the fans at the same time. The head-first dives into 1st base are probably unnecessary, but it definitely shows that he wants to get to 1st more than many other players.

How do I feel about him? Well obviously I like him, considering he used to be my favorite player. Like I expect many other Twins bloggers to say, he’s a good player that’s just misused by Gardy. He would be a great part-time player, backing up second, third, and short, but he occasionally flashes some “greatness” (except it’s not great….so how about “goodness”?) that makes the coaching staff believe he’s ready to tackle a regular starting role. He belongs in the bottom of the order, unless he’s having one of those .280 seasons. However, with Orlando Hudson now filling the #2 spot (and hopefully not falling to the Twins free agent curse), a .280 batting average in the bottom of the order could even be argued as being more helpful to the team, since Hudson would be providing his own .280 BA and .360 OBP at the top. Two is clearly greater than one.

It’s odd to think that adding a player makes a different player better, but what about adding two players? Don’t forget about J.J. Hardy. With Hardy filling shortstop, it means that Punto will most likely be manning 3rd for the Twins in 2010. His offense isn’t representative of your average 3rd baseman, but his defense isn’t either. Like I mentioned before, he’s basically a middle class man’s Chone Figgins (don’t try to argue to me that $4 million is a “poor man’s Figgins,” even if the real Figgins is making $9 million per year). If Punto had to be a full-time starter, 3rd base would be a place that I would put him.

There still is a chance that Brendan Harris is the starting 3B this season. If that’s the case, I’m fully OK with it. Punto seemed to play his best when he was bouncing around positions, rather than sticking at a single one. Another possibility is that he platoons with Harris, which wouldn’t be a problem with me either. I realize I’m basically saying “any situation is good for Punto,” but let me explain. The additions of Hudson and Hardy drastically improve two positions for the Twins. In years past, the Twins would have a combination of Punto and two marginally good players filling the three non-Morneau infield spots. Therefore, I feel like all negative outcomes with Nick have been eliminated, thanks to  the additions of Hardy and Hudson. They fill two positions that Punto would normally play, although he wouldn’t be that bad at shortstop. Hudson takes the #2 spot in the order away, and Hardy pushes Punto from the 8th spot to the 9th spot in the order. If Harris is included in the starting lineup, then Punto moves to the bench, where he becomes a good defensive replacement and pinch-runner late in games. So like I said, the addition of two players has made a third better, at least in the sense that he should be more useful to the team.

I know that one of our most recent memories of Nick Punto is him getting thrown out at 3rd base against the Yankees, but we shouldn’t let it get us down. He’s a pretty good player who definitely cares about his team and the game, and isn’t afraid to sacrifice a little bit of himself to help his team get closer to a victory. Besides, one of my favorite Twins memories involved him in a scene in ’08 that was awfully similar to Carlos Gomez being chased home by his teammates from the dugout in Game 163 this past year, both in action and in dramatics.

I wouldn’t mind seeing one of these again late in 2010.


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