Happy Nick Punto Day

11 Feb

also available at www.SethSpeaks.net

But First!!! Check out an article I wrote for Baseball Daily Digest which they titled Seth Speaks on Minnesota Minors!

The 2003/2004 offseason was a difficult one for Twins fans. The Twins had gone from being a horrible baseball team to being a contender and an AL Central champ, but several of the key players through that transition were moved. AJ Pierzynski was traded to the Giants for Joe Nathan, Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano. The deal made room for Joe Mauer to start. LaTroy Hawkins signed with the Cubs. Eddie Guardado signed with the Mariners.

On December 3, 2003, Terry Ryan trade lefty Eric Milton and the $9 million he was owed in 2004 to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Carlos Silva, Nick Punto and a Player to be Named Later (who turned out to be Bobby Korecky). It was the early years of my blogging career, and I lacked the ability to look at the big picture, so I called it a salary dump. Milton was a solid, still-young pitcher, and all the team could get was a long reliever and a utility infielder?

Torii Hunter, who had just signed a four year contract extension and never at a loss for words ran his mouth and showed his scouting abilities after the series of moves, “This stinks! It looks like we’re rebuilding again. If I had known this was going to happen, I probably wouldn’t have signed my deal… You’d think we could have offered that (what Hawkins got from Chicago). I think we’re forgetting who we’re dealing with here. Joe Nathan is no LaTroy Hawkins. He might be a good pitcher, but LaTroy has proven himself here, and he’s a chemistry guy.”

It didn’t take long for Terry Ryan to look like a genius, and for Torii Hunter to say all the wrong things.

But it is Nick Punto Day today, so let’s get back to that topic. Shortly before Twins Fest, Andrew Kneeland of Twins Target presented Twins bloggers with the following:

Nick Punto could quite possibly be the most controversial figure on the Minnesota Twins. Some hate him, a few love him, and even more think he is a decent utility infielder. I thought it would be a good idea to hold a Nick Punto Day among Twins’ bloggers. On Feb. 12 post your Nick Punto thoughts on your blog, and we will get a chance to see how this incredible blogging community feels about Nick Punto.

Where do you stand? How do you view the player who Gardy seems to be obsessed with? What is the ideal position for Punto? Feel free to go any number of ways with this topic, but please keep the focus on Punto. 

So let’s bring the focus back to Nick Punto. Andrew mentioned that Punto is a controversial figure with the Twins. I would say that he is a completely polarizing figure. I mean, some people love his attitude, the effort, the hustle, the defense, the dirty uniform, his stature, and probably a few other things. There are other fans who can’t stand Punto, questioning if he has incriminating pictures of Gardy, calling his dives into first base ‘fake hustle,’ lack of power, lack of ability to not hit the ball in the air, the lack of ability to hit period.

I’ll be completely honest. In Punto’s six full seasons in a Twins uniform, I have felt very polarizing thoughts on Punto from various times. In 2004 and 2005, his low-.600 OPS numbers showed that he indeed was a utility hitter, and that was fine. He was solid with the glove. Then came 2006 when he was forced into every day duty at 3B and performed admirably. Twins fans loved the glove. And he hit .290 and got on base 35% of the time. Of course, all that hype and when you look back at his season, you see that his OPS+ was just 90. An OPS+ of 100 is league average, and Punto’s “excellent” 2006 season still was 10% below average.

He was then given the Twins starting 3B job in 2007, and he was horrible. He lost the 3B job but played nearly every day somewhere because of his glove. He hit just .210/.291/.271. Offensively, he was the worst player in baseball. Twins bloggers seemed to want to bash Punto every single day. In honesty, I couldn’t do it. I did for awhile, but after awhile, I had a change of heart. Yes, Punto was horrible, but that’s what he was. Ron Gardenhire was the one who kept putting him in the lineup every game. It was like Twins fans being upset with Jacque Jones’s inability to hit left-handed pitching rather than blaming the manager who continued to have Jones hit against left-handers. Fortunately, Punto did not let his offensive struggles affect him defensively.

In 2008, Punto was back in a utility role but it wasn’t long before he was in the lineup every day. He responded again by hitting .284/.334/.382 and  by season’s end was the clear choice to be the Twins shortstop in 2009. In fact, as a free agent, he had offers from the Phillies and the Yankees, but he stayed with the Twins when they offered him two years and $8.5 million. When those numbers came out, many Twins fans seemed to forget the value Punto provided in 2008 and only thought of his struggles in 2007. The reality was that Punto and the Twins agreed to a fair market contract at the time.

Unfortunately, 2009 was another rough season for Punto. Given the shortstop job, it didn’t take long before Brendan Harris took over the duties and did well. Punto was back in the utility role. And now he goes into the 2010 season, maybe as a 3B option, maybe as a utility guy, maybe even as the backup centerfielder. And who knows, he may have a good year (And when I say “good”, I mean another 90 OPS+, of course).

So as I said, Punto has been polarizing to Twins fans, myself included. And those opinions can change from year to year, or from month to month.

So, what are my thoughts?

At this point, I have to say that I appreciate what Nick Punto is. A former 21st round draft pick, Nick Punto has been a huge success in his career. He is a little guy, but he is strong. It’s hard not to respect the career that he has had. But instead of expecting him to be something that he isn’t, I think we do need to take a step back and realize what he is, and what he can be. 

  • Defense – Clearly he wasn’t 100% in 2009 because his arm was not strong at all. He bounced a lot of throws to 1B in the early part of the season. But in general, Punto plays very good defense at all three infield spots. Yes, there are all the web gems, and a lot of that is hustle, but there is no questioning his defensive value. Punto is one of the better utility players in baseball .The problem has been that he has had to be more than a utility player.
  • Base running – he isn’t the fastest guy on the team, but he has very good speed. He had the bad base running in Game 3 against the Yankees, but in general, he’s a solid base runner. Yes, I am completely annoyed every single time Punto dives head-first into first base.
  • Offensively – He moves runners over. He gets bunts down… once in awhile. But Punto’s value with a bat is his ability to get on base and take walks. He is a career .248 hitter, but in the last four years, he has hit over .284 twice and under .228 twice. When he hits for average, he is solid. When he doesn’t hit for average, he still provides some value because he takes a lot of pitches, fouls off a lot of pitches and finds a way to get on base. For a guy with no power, his Isolated Discipline of .072 is very good. He hit just .228 in 2009 and yet still got on base almost 34% of the time. No, his OPS will never look good, because he has no power. On-base percentage is really the only number to look at with Nick Punto. That, and pitches per plate appearance. How many 10-12 pitch plate appearances did Punto have late last year? How much information does that allow Denard Span to attain while standing in the on deck circle? Ideally, a lineup would have Nick Punto batting ninth, but in a pinch, I really don’t have a problem with Punto batting second from time to time.
  • Yes, he is the guy that would be pinch hit for in the late innings, but he can also be the glove that comes into games in the late innings.
  • Willingness to do whatever – This is one of those intangibles that that statistics don’t measure. Over a 162 game season, team and roster fits and such matter so much in baseball. Punto is a great team player.
  • 2011 Option – I really hope that the Twins just pay the buyout and move on, but only because I think there are other utility options.

I really like this idea of having a Nick Punto Day, and I look forward to reading the postings from all of the other Twins bloggers that choose to participate today. Be sure to check many of them out. And then express your opinion. What are your Nick Punto Day thoughts?

One More Thought, for your consideration – Since the 1987 World Series championship season, the Twins have had a few long-term utility players. There was Al Newman. Then there was Jeff Reboulet. Next was Denny Hocking. And then came Nick Punto. Punto is as good and probably better than each of them. Those three were liked and appreciated for their performance. Punto is bashed. Now, sure, Gardy has played Punto in a more significant role, but that’s not Punto’s fault. There is a certain inconsistency here.


12 Responses to “Happy Nick Punto Day”

  1. thrylos98 February 12, 2010 at 1:10 am #

    Agreed pretty much 🙂

    esp. the parts where you are implying that Gardy might not be the manager we all thought he is 😉

  2. cass22 February 12, 2010 at 8:04 am #

    I wouldn’t say that Newman, Reboulet, or Hocking were appreciated in a way that Punto is not. The truth is, they all played too often for the role that they had on the team, but we didn’t have 21st-century media and blogging pointing it out every single day of the season. There would have been plenty of negativity directed at each, just as there is at Punto.

    In 1989, when Gary Gaetti went down with a knee injury, TK announced Newman would get most of the at-bats at third base, because there wasn’t a suitable replacement on the bench or in the minors at that time. There was certainly a collective groan from Twins Territory at that point, but we didn’t have message boards or the blogosphere to express the fans’ outrage. If that happened in 2010, TK would have been subject to the same criticism that Gardy is.

  3. TT February 12, 2010 at 9:17 am #

    I guess I had a different take on why Harris was at shortstop – Casilla wasn’t getting the job done at second and Harris couldn’t do the job there either. So I looked at game logs. Harris wasn’t handed the SS position until Punto went on the DL at the end of May. Tolbert was called up and took the second base job. When Punto came back, he was installed at second base replacing Casilla. By mid-July Harris was moved to third base and Punto was back at shortstop again until Cabrera arrived. In short, those moves reflected Punto’s abilities and failings by others, rather than Punto.

  4. TT February 12, 2010 at 9:32 am #

    Actually Punto had a pretty good year last year. He got on base more often than Harris and scored more runs. He had the 6th highest OBP on the team and scored more often when he was on base. He scored .370 of the times when he got on base compared to .343 for the Twins number nine hitters on average.

    Which is really what you want in a guy batting ninth. I haven’t looked at number nine hitters, but he must have been one of the better ones in the league. Of course number nine hitters are not big run producers and neither is Punto. But he turned the position into an offensive plus for the Twins.

    The problem isn’t that Punto had a bad year, its with people’s obsession with OPS as some sort of measure of a player’s offensive contribution.

  5. JK February 12, 2010 at 10:08 am #

    If you want an excellent “saber” discussion of Nick Punto here it is.

  6. mike wants wins February 12, 2010 at 10:26 am #

    TT: runs scored as a percent of times on base? Don’t you think that is driven by the hitters hitting after him? That’s an odd stat to use for sure. I don’t get how you think that is driven by Punto.

    I do agree this his high OBP is valuable. I think it makes him more valuable than most fans realize, as they are stuck looking at batting average and ignoring walks.

    I don’t agree that you can ignore his terrible slugging percentage (as you imply in your disparagement of people that like OPS – maybe you could try talking about OPS, rather than about the people that like that stat). That low slugging percentage does make him less valuable than many other players.

    As for me, I think Punto is a nice enough player to have around. I think he’s a starting SS or great utility player. I think his defense is good, but not as great as some claim (I think UZR backs that up). I think signing him to $4MM is an odd choice for a team that has a small payroll (as the Twins used to have). However, given that Casilla has turned out to be bad, that contract doesn’t look so bad. I think you can carry his bat at 3B, if his arm is back to normal and you have a 2B/SS that can hit. You can’t carry his bat there if you have mediocre/bad hitters at 3 other positions. Overall, I’m amazed at the emotions expended on the guy. I’m always baffled by the negativity of the negative comments, they often go over the line from discussing the quality of the play to discussing him as a human being. I think that is driven by the gushing over him by the manager and the media. Just as some people don’t like Favre because the media kisses his butt (what, exactly does that have to do with his play), I think some people don’t like Punto (how can that be, what has he ever done to be disliked as a person).

    I think it is reasonable to question his play relative to his reputation or to other players. I think it is reasonable to question his contract, given the payroll size for this team last year. I don’t think it is reasonable to hate on him as a person. Oh, and I do think it is reasonable to question Gardy’s seeming love for him, and willingness to rip other players, but not Nick, even when they do the same things.

  7. TT February 12, 2010 at 10:56 am #

    Mike –

    I compared Punto to the Twins other number nine hitters, who were presumably getting on base with the same players hitting after them.

    The fact is that getting on base is useless if you don’t score. And there is at least as much variation in how often a player scores once on base as there is in how often they get on base.

    Getting on base is both underrated and overrated depending on the fan’s religion at the time. The fact is its value depends on a player’s role on the team. That is precisely because who hits next changes the value of getting on base. It ought to be obvious getting to first base with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau coming to the plate is a lot more valuable than getting on first base with Nick Punto coming to the plate. It doesn’t have a fixed value.

    As for managers criticism. All players make mistakes – even Joe Mauer. The manager may not like Punto’s diving into first base. But its part of his game and he has been successful with it as part of his game. A young player doing the same thing is going to get called out. Veterans have earned the right to have their mistakes kept in context. Young players haven’t. They are treated as teaching opportunities instead.

  8. joelthing February 12, 2010 at 11:21 am #

    Newman, Reboulet, Hocking…and Punto. Utility guy. That’s Nick. Someone goes down, he can play more. Someone needs a rest, he can play.

    But to be THE STARTER, no.

    Hudson or Punto? Hardy or Punto? Crede, Ty, Kaz, anyone or Punto?

    Only third baseman Punto should play for is…Brendan Harris. And arguments could be made on that front, too.

    He’s scrappy, a team player. But he is first, and foremost, a utility guy. If starterdom is thrust upon him because of some mid-season mishap, then I’m glad he’s on board (as I was with Newman, Reboulet and Hocking). But one doesn’t need to GO OUT OF THEIR WAY to find at bats for the guy.

    And, Seth…Punto batting second! Arrgh! Sure, he can take some pitches, but too many 0-fer-3s and 0-fer-4s do add up. Someone has to make the outs, but don’t do it in front of Mauer annd Morneau.

  9. doofus February 12, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    Nick Punto is the caulk that makes this team fit together. makes both the offense and defense better if applied correctly. In 06 he should have been the starter at 3rd in 07 the plug should have been pulled sooner. Lots of useful skills, defense at 2nd, SS and 3B, pinch runner/ base runner, If only he could find a way to steal 1B more often he would have more fans….Maybe thats why he slides head first into first base…..

    Seth when I first started on some of these chat lines, I used to say that Rivas would be a useful player and solid number 2 hitter if he could just have a .340 obp because he was solid defensively. Punto had a .337obp last year…..

  10. Evan February 12, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

    There was one time last year(or in 2008) when actually diving into first base was the right play. But other than that, diving into 1st slows you down and is just plain stupid.

  11. USAFChief February 12, 2010 at 5:25 pm #

    TT: “Tolbert was called up and took the second base job. When Punto came back, he was installed at second base replacing Casilla.”

    Which was it, TT? How could Punto replace Casilla, if as you claim, Tolbert took the second base job?

    The fact is, Punto was handed the shortstop job to start the season, but it was apparent early that he couldn’t handle the job, offensively OR defensively, which ultimately caused the Twins to trade for a shortstop. That Punto was deemed (accurately) a better option at second at that point than Casilla says more about Casilla than Punto.

  12. TT February 12, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    “the fact is, Punto was handed the shortstop job to start the season, but it was apparent early that he couldn’t handle the job”

    In your opinion. But he didn’t, in fact, lose the job for that reason. Gardy was pretty clear that the problem was he wasn’t comfortable with Harris at second base. With Casilla not producing, Punto was moved to second when he came off the DL. Tolbert was sent back to the minors. You can quibble about whether he was replacing Casilla or Tolbert, its not really relevant to the discussion.

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