A Study in Contrasts: My Entry in Nick Punto Day

What follows is my entry in the Nick Punto Day event sponsored by Twins bloggers and conceived of by Andrew Kneeland. All posts can be found here and by searching for the hashtag #NickPuntoDay on Twitter. You can follow me at @calltothepen.

I’ve always been fairly agnostic with regard to Nick Punto. I came aboard as a serious Twins fan before the magical 2006 season (following several moves around the country), so I never really had a home team. I started off as a Punto fan, due to that season alone, when he anchored third base. I didn’t read a single Twins blog until the end of the season, and knowing as little about baseball as I did at the time, I had no reason to know anything other than that he was on Top Plays all the time and that Dick ‘n’ Bert loved him. However, after the season I decided to educate myself about the numbers and realized that there was a lot to dislike about Nick Punto.

That wasn’t even a “bad season” as far as Punto was concerned. However, 2007 was. He flirted with the Mendoza Line all summer before finally surpassing it for good in September with a late surge. He showed no power. However, the next year, 2008, he overtook Mike Lamb, batting far better than he did the year before, and I thought he would finally justify my love for his slick fielding with two years of decent batting average. After the 2007, the Twins office rewarded him with a 2-year, $8.5 million dollar contract (he had had a 2-year, $4.2 million contract prior to that).

However, in 2009 he forgot how to hit again in limited duty most of the season (he morphed into the starting second baseman once again, midway, after Casilla had enough of a horrible run that he lost his job). So, of the years I have been watching, two years Punto was great. Two years, he was terrible. What am I to do?

This being the first ever Nick Punto Day, I wasn’t sure what to write, what with my lack of a decisive opinion (and the lack of a statistical brain to push myself into one camp or the other). So, I’ll lay out my thoughts a bit more.

Nick Punto is a generally good defender, and an utterly craptastic hitter. He has fits of brilliance at both the plate and on the field. But Punto makes his work both on the field and at the plate/on the basepaths look much harder than it needs to be. Punto famously slides into first base (and famously injures his hand/wrist every other year doing so), despite the fact that he has been told numerous times that doing so actually slows him down. He also pushes the most agonized expressions onto his face when he’s running, even though he is hopelessly slow. I’ll acknowledge that he is a decent baserunner, so long as we don’t count getting picked off at first base.

Punto is also excellent on the field (and the defensive metrics, which I am too stupid to understand) back that up. However, he has what I like to call TP syndrome (TP = Top Play). Granted, a lot of the plays he makes are very, very difficult and are a testament to his skill with the leather. However, there is still a large number of plays that are not that difficult but that he makes look extremely difficult in the way that he dives/skids/jumps/etc. He is also tremendously versatile defensively. We head into this season with Punto as the most likely backup center fielder (no, you didn’t read that wrong). When Blackburn is pitching, Punto should play somewhere in the infield, assuming a higher ground ball rate. The rest of the time, he should start the game on the bench.

History has shown that in circumstances where Punto has had to fight for a starting job (or didn’t have one to start the season, at least), he has been excellent at the plate. This was true in 2006, when he fought for (and eventually won) the starting third base job. It was also true in 2008, when the front office had invested in Mike Lamb and Adam Everett in his preferred positions. In years that Punto has been handed a starting job, he was been wretched. This includes last year (where he was basically penciled in as the starting shortstop (with occasional turns at second base). He would have lost his starting job completely if not for the fact that Alexi Casilla underwhelmed even by Puntonian standards. The same was true in 2007, when he was given the starting third base job, even though it was intended to be a marginal platoon with Jeff Cirillo (man, that’s a name I haven’t thought of in a long time). Well, it turned out that Cirillo couldn’t walk properly with his bad knees, much less, you know, play baseball, so Punto effectively had the starting job. He also spent some time at second base, after the Castillo trade and after Casilla exhibited near-record amounts of fail.

Punto has also been excellent in contract years. This is true for both 2006 (rewarded with a 2-year, 4.2 million contract) and 2008 (rewarded with a 2-year, 8.4 million dollar contract with a $5 million team option for 2011). His worst years (2007 and 2009) were both years in which he had guaranteed money and there was no real pressure to perform at the plate (other than the pressure not to be worthless).

So, what do I take from all of this? Punto needs to have competition. If he is handed something, he will do his best (unintentionally I’m sure) play himself out of it so he is able to compete for what was given to him. When he has a goal, he plays great (in terms of getting a really awesome contract, at least). When the pressure is off, he performs much below replacement level.

What do the Twins need to do in order to ensure that gamer Punto, and not crap-it-all-away Punto, appears this year? They need to make it clear from day one that his option is not getting picked up unless he plays well enough to deserve it. Bill Smith needs to sit down with Gardy and do whatever he has to do (beg/plead/whine/blackmail with pictures of Gardy in compromising positions in your local hardwarestore) to ensure that Punto doesn’t get the third base job handed to him. Billy, you gave Brendan Harris a crapton of money to Brendan Harris over the offseason. Make sure he has a shot at third base. Maybe his bat will develop in the way that we keep expecting if someone shows a little faith in him (as Gardy has shown little faith forthcoming). Most importantly, ensure that Punto is a reserve infielder. Period. I have no problem with Punto starting 2 days a week to rest O-Dog or Harris or Span. Just don’t make him an everyday starter. A lineup with Harris as the number nine hitter is beautiful.

On the same token, though, if Punto clearly deserves it, give him a starting job over whoever doesn’t deserve it. If Punto puts together another 2008 season, I want him to be a starter. If not, however, Punto can make a semi-permanent butt-impression on the spanking new bench at Target Field.

I don’t know what has to be done in order to make this happen. I think that giving someone other than Gardy control over the lineup would be a good start. That won’t ever happen, so… whatevs. All I know, however, is that a great deal of ink has been shed for Punto’s benefit today. If the Twins disregard all the information in all the pieces, they’re giving a middle finger to the fans by ignoring what must be done to field a winner.

Copyright SI.

The Top Prospect Countdown will return on Monday.

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