Nick Punto and The Little Things

Since Ron Gardenhire took the reins in Minnesota in 2002, the Twins have played .547 baseball and won five AL Central Division titles. Somehow, they have managed to succeed in a small market while teams like the Royals, Pirates, Brewers, Reds, Nationals, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Marlins are mired in relative futility. Even the brilliant Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics couldn’t maintain their small-market success in the latter part of the decade.

Meanwhile, the Twins have maintained their competitive edge, highly due to their reliance on “doing the little things right.” Never mind that they’ve fielded players like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Johan Sanatana, Torii Hunter, and Joe Nathan. It’s the little things.

One player on the 2009 Minnesota Twins that fits this mold exactly is Nick Punto . Yes, the same Nick Punto that Derek Jeter threw out on a baserunning gaffe in Game Three of this year’s ALDS. Outside of that one instance, Punto has the perfect Minnesota Twin reputation: light hitter, great defender, runs the bases well, can move runners over, and can pick up hits in clutch situations.

Punto certainly is a light hitter. Since 2005, Punto has accrued at least 375 plate appearances in every season. In these seasons, Punto’s wOBA ranges from .260 to .324. Punto simply has no power, and his on-base skills don’t mitigate this deficiency. In a league that averages an ISO between .155 and .160, Punto has never posted an ISO above .098 – his career rate is .076. Combine that with a career walk rate that hovers around average and you’ve got a consistently below average hitter. His only near average years came with fluctuations in BABIP in ’07 and ’09, where his BABIP was nearly 30 points above his career norm both years.

Punto’s defensive reputation appears real. He is a far above average shortstop and third baseman, and in a sample of about 1.5 seasons has a +16 and +20 UZR/150 respectively at these positions. At 2B, where he has a similar sample, UZR doesn’t like him nearly as much, grading him as a +5 2B. Although these samples aren’t large enough to conclusively say that Punto is an Adam Everett-esque fielder, they do suggest his fielding ability is well above average, especially on the left side of the infield.

Now, the other things reflect what are generally considered “the little things.” For baserunning, Baseball Prospectus has a handy (if poorly implemented) tool where they display a player’s EQBRR, or Equivalent Baserunning Runs – including SB/CS as well as other measurements of baserunning such as taking the extra base. Punto’s hardly been a world beater. Since 2005, he’s been worth +6 runs. He had an excellent baserunning season in 2009, at +4 runs (the spread is rarely more than a win on either side), but his true talent is probably nearer the average of +1 run he’s shown in this span.

The other two skills mentioned above involve situational hitting. If we were to see evidence of Punto’s ability to “move runners over ” or perform better with men on base, we should see this difference in his RE24 numbers, based on run expectancies of base-out states, and his wOBA numbers (check this out for more on “little things” ). We don’t really see any consistent evidence either way. Overall, Punto’s actually been five runs worse by RE24 than wOBA, indicating that he is actually worse in situations with runners on. The data doesn’t suggest much predictability, as the numbers fluctuate from -8 to +7 depending on the season.

Similarly, if he’s a “clutch” hitter, we’d see this in his “clutch” stat that we calculate here at FanGraphs. Once again, there is no conclusion to gain from this data. Punto has been +.45 wins better in the clutch, according to the calculation, but again we see wild fluctuation (from -.65 to +.72) and what could possibly be interpreted as skill is likely just random variation.

Nick Punto may be heralded as one of those rare players who, despite having little tangible hitting talent, does those little things so well that he can bring a team to the top. Don’t believe it – it’s not true. Look at Punto for what he really is – a tremendous defender who managed to put together a couple of seasons with a solid BABIP. He’s a great bench player who can adequately fill in at any non-1B infield position, but any team that starts him wont’ be a perennial playoff contender. That is, unless that team’s catcher is Joe Mauer.

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

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Kevin S.
13 years ago

This post made me smile. Keep it up, Jack!

Big Oilmember
13 years ago
Reply to  Kevin S.

Agreed, good read Jack.

13 years ago
Reply to  Kevin S.

This was a good read, if a bit Cameron-esque. For all the shit CC takes (Carson Cistulli, not the Yankees ace), he has a unique voice. This sight often reads like DC, his apostles, and CC. There are definitely worse things, but still…