True Utility: Nick Punto

During his tenure with the Minnesota Twins, Nick Punto has often been the object of scorn around the internet, generally being lumped in with players like Willie Bloomquist as another “speedy” white dude whose alleged “scrappiness” overshadows overall lousiness on the baseball field. The Twins recently decided that they weren’t enamored enough with Punto to pick up his five million dollar option for 2011. With Orlando Hudson looking for bigger deal in 2011 and thus unlikely to return, Minnesota seems to be looking to Alexi Casilla as their 2011 second baseman at the moment. I don’t think Casilla is as good as Punto — whatever small advantage he has with the bat is taken away by a terrible glove — but if the Twins need to trim payroll, not picking up Punto’s option makes sense (although picking up Jason Kubel’s option is an odd choice…). That’s a lot of money for a part-timer.

But where might Punto fit? He’s clearly a terrible offensive player. His .324 wOBA in 2008 was encouraging, but since then he’s failed to be over .300 in a full season, and sported a Kendallian .280 in 2010. CHONE’s August update estimated his true, context-neutral hitting talent at -15. Of course, that isn’t the whole story with Punto. While never getting a full season of playing time, the last three seasons he has been 2.5 (377 PA), 1.3 (440 PA), and 1.4 WAR (288 PA), respectively. UZR is impressed with his infield defense at 3B, 2B, and SS. So is DRS, and (to a lesser extent) TotalZone. He’s probably an above-average fielder at second and third (where his range makes up for a weak arm), and although he’s not as good at shortstop, he’s probably at least average-ish. He’s likely close to 1.5 WAR player over a full season. $4.5 million (once his $500,000 buyout is accounted for) is still too much for him if he isn’t going to play full-time (although if he were, it wouldn’t be bad). I’m not sure whether the Twins will try to re-sign him for less or not, but if they don’t, he should find a job somewhere.

“Utility player” gets thrown about a fair bit. Sometimes it is used for players who can’t play anywhere well (or can’t hit well enough to play the “easy” positions), guys like Bloomquist or Ross Gload (Gload being the LF/1B version). A better term for such players is simply “replacement level,” I think, since their utility (theoretically, since some teams insist on paying them well) is really in filling the end of the bench while being paid the minimum. Punto, however, has genuine utility. Despite being noodle-batted, he can field well at positions that are difficult to fill; he isn’t simply a guy who is defensively good at first base or left field. Indeed, even if he’s a bit below average at shortstop, that’s valuable, even for a -15 hitter.

That doesn’t mean that every team in the league should be lining up to sign the 33-year-old Punto. Let’s say he’s a 1.5 WAR player. If he plays about half the season, that’s less than one win over replacement. Yes, a win is probably going to be worth between four and five million dollars in 2011, but that’s on average. Teams that aren’t going to contend shouldn’t look at Punto (unless he’s willing to play for the minimum) or players like him; the extra win isn’t worth that much to rebuilding teams. However, a player like Punto does make sense for a contender for whom the value of a marginal win is greater. The Yankees aren’t necessarily a team that should target Punto, but let’s use them as an example. Their third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, has missed substantial numbers of games the last three seasons. Assuming they bring Derek Jeter back, he’ll be 36 to start next season. And Robinson Cano will need a game off every once in a while. The Yankees are trying to contend in the toughest division in baseball, so a player like Punto might makes sense for them. (Again, the Yankees are just an example; one could potentially put win-now teams like the Phillies, Cardinals, or even the Twins on the list.)

Contenders have too much at stake to play a true replacement-level player for an extended period of time if one of their starting infielders go down, so if they can get Nick Punto at, say, two million dollars for 2011, it makes sense. Many teams are going to sign mediocre relievers for more than that. Punto isn’t a great player, but his ability to play good defense at hard-to-fill positions makes him a valuable one in the right situation. That skill, not “scrappiness,” is why Punto, unlike the replacement-level players he is often confused with, has true utility.





Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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M.Twain
11 years ago

Nicely said, Matt. It’s also a good argument for why he doesn’t fit for the Mariners.

The Ancient Mariner
11 years ago
Reply to  M.Twain

Actually, it isn’t; the M’s need someone like him for a different reason. They have no starting 2B for next year until Ackley is ready, but it would be unwise for them to leave themselves in a position where they have to rush him; they also have a starting SS made of fine porcelain, and no backup. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ackley and Wilson between them give the M’s fewer than 200 starts next season, so the team badly needs somebody who can play both positions at least competently — but given that they can’t afford to block Ackley this season, and are probably at least keeping a weather eye cocked on the development of Nick Franklin at SS, this is not a position where going out and making a big commitment to a long-term starter is likely to be the best use of resources. As such, somebody like Punto — start at 2B until Ackley takes the job, then split time at SS the rest of the way, filling in from time to time wherever else he might be needed — would be a very valuable player for the development of the 2011 Seattle Mariners.

M.Twain
11 years ago

The Mariners have far too many holes to worry about “if” a player (Wilson) gets injured. They also have a second baseman in Figgins until Ackley is ready, and two potential third basemen in Tuiasosopo and Mangini. Unless, of course, you believe that one year of UZR is suddenly enough data and you also believe that 3B and 2B are so radically different that a player can be a good defender at one position and not the other, in this case, a speedy player with an average arm.

CMC_Stags
11 years ago

M.Twain-

On Figgins… he has more than one year at 2B and all the signs point to him being well below average there. On the other hand, all the signs point to him being well above average at 3B. If he’s on the team then playing him at 3B for the full season makes the most sense.

Punto at 2B with Figgins at 3B would be of much more utility to the M’s than Figgins at 2B and Tui/Mangini at 3B. He’d also have more flexibility if there was a trade of or injury to Figgins or Wilson.

M.Twain
11 years ago

CMC_Stags,

Figgins has played 2B for about a year and a half over his ML career, but only one year full time. In the half year, spread over several years, he was about average.

If you look at Orlando Hudson’s career, you can find 1.5 year spans of UZR data that says he’s very good or very bad or average. But don’t take my word for it – Dave Cameron has written about needing about 3 years of UZR data and that there is not a big difference between the two positions for players that play both. Even Nick Punto, who has ~2000 innings at each 2B, 3B, and SS, appears to be much better at 3B and SS than he is a 2B. Is there any logical reason why that would be the case?

Matt Defalco
11 years ago

Why are the main topics of my second year literature class commenting on Fangraphs?

Naliamegod
11 years ago

Tui and Mangini really aren’t options for starting at the MLB level at this point and you don’t want them to revert to part-time play when Ackley is ready. And Wilson is an “if,” he is a definite. The team badly needs some form of a SS to play their semi-regulary.

Kurt Vonnegut
11 years ago

Re: Matt Defalco

No idea.

Nick
11 years ago

Shouldn’t it say “when” Wilson gets hurt, not “if?”