Friday, February 12, 2010

What It Means to be Punto-esque

For whatever reason, the mere mention of “Nick Punto” and “starting job” evokes a kneejerk reaction as if someone just suggested aborting puppies on Christmas morning. You would think that in addition to rounding third a tad too overzealously in the deciding divisional game, needlessly diving headlong into first base to impress some omnipresent Pete Rose and producing incorrigible offensive numbers in successive odd years, that Punto somehow managed to find the opportunity to sleep with everyone’s sister and never call her back. This hatred to one local player might be legendary among the fans but is all this abhorrence validated?

While there is no denying the obvious shortcomings in his batting average (.229) or power (.284 slugging) this past season, but you cannot continue without acknowledging that he was partially a victim of unlucky batted ball outcomes when it came to the former. When people become enamored by his odd-and-even, up-and-down offensive numbers, some fail to comprehend the level of chance that factors in once the ball leaves the bat from year-to-year. Without the capabilities of putting too much of a charge into the ball, Punto’s better offensive season -- at least by batting average standards – of 2008 and 2006 the Twins’ infielder had two very good batting averages on groundballs in play. In 2008 while hitting 44.7 percent of balls on the ground he held a .293 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) - besting the league’s average by .053 points. Likewise, in 2006, Punto hit groundballs on 46.3 percent of balls in play and exercised a decent .282 BABIP on those which was .042 points better than the league average. On the other hand in his down years, his BABIP on groundballs in ’07 was -.010 points below the league average while hitting them 50.9 percent of the time (to be sure, his line drive BABIP was considerably worse than average as well dragging his numbers down a cavernous abyss). Meanwhile, this past season, he knocked 47.7 percent of pitches in play on the ground and managed to post a BABIP of just .204, -.036 points worse than average.

For the record, I do not entirely believe that Punto will be able to rebound in 2010. Because of the aforementioned batted balls, his offensive numbers will be extremely volatile and because of the abundance of replacement option at third, management will be less likely to continue to trot him out there in the event of a prolonged slump. As a hitter that cannot lift too many balls over the fence (or outfielder’s heads for that matter), Punto’s overall batting average is contingent on groundballs finding seams in the infield. In order to overcome this fluctuating game-of-chance that is central to his offensive performance, he has to contribute at a very high level in various other arenas of the game in and out of the batter’s box. There’s plenty of evidence that goes beyond the conventional statistics that highlights Nick Punto’s contributions.

Some people cringe at the term “scrappiness” the same way women do upon hearing John Mayer’s depiction of his Jessica Simpson exploits. One such example that qualifies as a scrapper in which he excelled was working the count, taking pitches, fouling a large number off and ultimately drawing a walk. Punto’s 4.20 pitches-per-plate appearance was the highest in the Twins lineup. Part of this was due to his ability to foul off pitches. In total, he fouled off 341 pitches (46% of his swings) more than his total swings that wound up in fair territory (308). Even though this is not a redeemable skill per se, Punto had 35 at bats in which he made a pitcher throw seven or more pitches, roughly 10% of a starting pitcher’s arsenal in one plate appearance. In the end, this does not show up in a boxscore (and habitually annoys the viewer at home who just wants to see hitter’s mash taters) but this conducts an invaluable service by allowing his team to see the pitcher’s entire repertoire and wears said pitcher down much quicker. Furthermore, Punto’s managed to finish the at bat more frequently with a free pass to first this past season – increasing his walk rate from 8.5% in ’08 to 13.5% in ’09. Because of his higher than the norm walk rate Punto’s .337 on-base percentage was above tolerable and average for an American League infielder. If he can somehow coax the baseball gods to allow a few more of those grounders to skip into the outfield and maintain this walk rate, the Twins would have an above average infielder.      

Although there is no widely accepted stat that encompasses baserunning(uh)itude that is accepted on the same level of other metrics, there is no doubt that Punto runs the bases like a Lexus hugging the California coastal highway. On the bases in ‘09 Punto’s well-timed tenacity and willingness to scamper for the extra base regularly gave the Twins a runner in scoring position. He swiped 16 bases in 19 attempts, advancing safely 84% of the time. More than that, he made just one out on the bases outside of the three times he was caught stealing. According to Bill James’ Baserunning Analysis Punto netted +27 in total bases. For what turned out to be a part-time player, this was phenomenal. Tenth on James’s Baserunning Analysis leaderboard for the season was former Twin Jason Bartlett who was +30, had a little over a hundred additional plate appearances than Punto to gain his extra bases. As a ninth hitter, he truly does don the qualities of a “second leadoff hitter” – getting on base and scoring runs from the bottom of the order.   

On defense, Punto provides flexibility, which is a quality and service that cannot be overlooked with expanding bullpens claiming precious roster space. And he does so not in the same manner as “Cuddyer can play center field if Denard Span went down.” Not only can he play three infield positions, he can play them well. Last year, he was decent at shortstop (4.7 UZR/150) and better yet at second (9.4 UZR/150). But the reality is that his opportunity in 2010 is at third where has done extremely well throughout his career (19.9 UZR/150) and this may be better suited as he has experienced shrinking range as he ages. In 2006 while playing third, Punto was the sixth best defender according to John Dewan’s Plus/Minus system (+16) and was eighth the following year (+10). Relocating him back to third would help solidify the defensive alignment around the diamond, particularly useful when groundball pitcher Nick Blackburn is on the mound.

So the mistreatment of Nick Punto is a bit unjust. Consider for a moment the term “Punto-esque”, a phrase used to describe futility at the plate in the Upper Midwest. It has slipped into the Twins fans’ lexicon as seamlessly as “Munson” or “Mendoza line.” This, of course, is perpetuated by casual fans that have latched onto some of the visual events that Punto symbolizes (i.e., making an out at third in the ALDS, sliding into first, pathetic batting averages, tendencies to sleep with your sister, etc). A look beyond the standard numbers reveals that he is a player that is able to provide more to the team than meets the eye. He demonstrates with his plate discipline, his baserunning skills and his versatile defense. He’s proven to be exceptional in other areas of the game that, if not make up for, at the very least compensates for his deficiencies at the plate. Perhaps we should re-assess our traditional beliefs of the composition of a ballplayer and begin to realize that we can use Punto-esque to describe an underappreciated player who finds other ways to contribute to a division-winning team.