Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The two sides of Nick Punto

When the retrospective history on Nick Punto is completed, the subtitle will read “The man who couldn’t hit but boy could he field”.

Dating back to 2005, when he became steady presence with the Twins or at least a common sight subbing in as a pinch runner or defensive replacement, Punto has swung lethargic lumber. In that time he has hit .248/.323/.325 with the third-lowest OPS (.647) among qualified players. Among the more light-hitting infielders, he also struck out an inordinate amount of the time (18.5%) rendering his fairly impressive speed useless when the ball failed to meet the bat.

Where he was considered useful - at least in some managers’ opinion - was in his ability to lay down a bunt. In his 2,274 plate appearances since 2005, Punto laid down 45 sacrifices, by far the most by a player who did not spend any time in the National League, the more small-ball-oriented of the two leagues. Likewise, the scrapper also managed to reach safely 45 times for bunt hits. This was by far the most by any American League hitter in that time.

None of this nickel-and-dime stuff helped offset the reality that he was providing little-to-no value to the club with a bat in his hand. In fact, by’s account, he cost the Twins roughly 70 runs when standing next to the plate:

Batting Runs Above Average (2005-10)
Cesar Izturis
Pedro Feliz
Adam Everett
Jason Kendall
Clint Barmes
Willy Taveras
Yuniesky Betancourt
Omar Vizquel
Nick Punto

Of course, whatever damage Punto did with his bat, he almost completely compensated for with his extraordinary defensive skills.

At short, a position he played at in 1,881 innings since ’05, his 18.9 UZR/150 was the best in baseball, topping other glove lovers like Adam Everett, Omar Vizquel and JJ Hardy. One position to his right at third, Punto once again was considered the most elite defender there by the Ultimate Zone Rating standards. His 20.0 UZR/150 in 2,098 innings led baseball and surpassed notables such as Evan Longoria, Joe Crede and Ryan Zimmerman.

In fact, since 2005 when he first started making regular appearances in Ron Gardenhire’s lineups, Punto has been 62.6 runs above average in the field according to

Fielding Runs Above Average (2005-10)
Chase Utley
Carl Crawford
Franklin Gutierrez
Pedro Feliz
Andruw Jones
Ichiro Suzuki
Nick Punto

In those five seasons, Punto was paid approximately $12.9 million but provided nearly 9.4 wins above replacement (WAR). By comparison, the Twins paid the underrated Michael Cuddyer $27.1 million in that same period but received less than one more win over replacement from him (10.3). Clearly, the Twins were able to make their often demurred investment in Punto worth their while.

Now 33 years old in 2011, it will be interesting to see if the Cardinals will be able to extract the same amount of value from his defense and his baserunning prowess that the Twins were able to while Punto was in his mid-to-late 20s. Still, for the small $750,000 chunk of change, St. Louis will receive a versatile, above-average fielder.