Little Nicky Punto. What can you say about him that hasn't already been said?
Well, how about this:
- When he first arrived in Minnesota, I didn't care about him, but I slowly grew to dislike him.
- Then, after sticking around for a few years, I've grown to really like him, but for no reason that makes any rational sense.
Begin with the most controversial charge, but one I think I can back up.
Punto arrived in Minnesota having played just a handful of big league games for Philadelphia over the previous three seasons, and with little evidence that he deserved to play that many more. As TwinsGeek himself pointed out at the time, his minor league resume looked eerily like that of Denny Hocking. Through his first 111 plate appearances with Philly, Punto amassed a .223/545 hitting line; nothing certainly to get all that excited about.
In his first season with the Twins, playing in a handful of games (but a far larger handful than he'd played in any season for Philly), Punto 'improved' to .253/658. That looks pretty impressive -- a 30-point bump in batting average, and an over 100 point bump in OPS. Not too shabby, right?
Problem was that folks were looking at Punto, by the end of the year, as a second-baseman, and the Twins already had a second-baseman who'd finished the year hitting .256/715. Yes, same ability to put the ball in play, more power and patience. That man was Luis Rivas.
In a sense, the problem was that Rivas's season was right in line with his Twins career to that point (.261/688 from 2001-2003), and folks seemed to think that Rivas was 'stuck', incapable of improvement. Folks contracted Punto's hustle to a perceived lack of hustle on Rivas's part (though nobody can actually point to an example of Luis's supposed lack-of-hustle). People seemed more impressed by Punto's leap in numbers than by Rivas's consistency, ignoring both that Punto's leap likely wouldn't be repeated and that, even after the leap, Rivas's numbers were better. And those who claimed Punto was s superior defensive second-baseman simply seemed to refuse to notice how Punto, on the pivot, resembled a bullhead flailing at the bottom of the canoe.
That's when I most disliked Nick Punto.
Move on to 2005. Rivas was gone, Punto was the second baseman, and sure enough, Punto regressed, finishing the season at .239/636. His career line prior to 2005 now summed .237/599. It seemed like we all knew who Nick Punto was now, and yeah, he sucked.
Over the next four years, Nick Punto would enter the Maelstrom. For the next four years, Punto's seasonal batting average wouldn't finish within 20 points of his career batting average, and would only once finish within 38 points of his career batting average. Over the next three years, the difference between his seasonal OPS and his career OPS prior to the season would average almost exactly 100 points. Here are the actual numbers:
career to 2006: .238/624 - 2006: 290/725
career to 2007: .261/668 - 2007: .210/562
career to 2008: .245/635 - 2008: 284/726
career to 2009: .252/652 - 2009: .228/647
Including Punto's first two years with the Twins, that's just two seasons where either Punto's batting average or OPS has been within the same ZIP code as his career numbers. What's Nick Punto going to give you this year? Flip a coin, man, 'cause there's no other way to know.
During these last four seasons, Punto's fortunes seemed to mirror that of the Twins -- when Punto dramatically overachieved in 2006, it was part of a general offensive overachievement that saw the Twins win the Central Division on the final day of the season in a season that still qualifies as miraculous, even after 2008 and 2009. When Punto crashed back to Earth in 2007, the Twins seemed to crash with him. Punto's 2008 rebound coincided with the most exciting pennant race I've ever seen a Twins team take part in -- a summer-long chase with the White Sox that ended, again, on the final day of the season.
And oddly, during that time, Nick Punto has, if anything, grown on me.
It started, oddly enough, in 2005, when I attended Kyle Lohse's last start as a Twin, against the Royals on September 28. Punto led off that day and went 0-4, which you'd think I'd be upset about. But I kept a pitch counter that game, and Punto saw more pitches than any other Twin: significantly more, in fact. The baseball-reference box score bears this out: Punto saw 28 pitches, the most on either club that day, and way more than the Twins #2 man Luis Rodriguez's 21. In fact, on a day that could have been summed up as 'Twins bail out Jose Lima again and again', Punto and Rodriguez were the only Twins to see as many as 20 pitches in their plate appearances. For a guy who didn't get on base once, Punto did as good a job as you can do leading off a ballgame.
Fast-forward to 2009, and the 16-inning marathon against the Tigers over the fourth-of-July weekend, a series that would end up being highly significant to the Twins' post-season chances. Through the first ten innings of play, Punto saw 17 pitches, drawing two walks, and scoring both times he got on base (once on a Justin Morneau single after leading off the third, and again on a Denard Span double in the sixth). Then, to lead off the eleventh, Ron Gardenhire sent Brian Buscher to lead off the inning. Buscher struck out swinging, and was replaced by Matt Tolbert, who went down meekly both times he batted in the rest of the game.
It is a testament to how much my feelings about Punto have changed that I was more upset about Punto being replaced than I was to see Nathan sit down after facing just four batters. Would the Twins have won that game, eliminating the need for a one-game playoff with the Tigers at the end of the season, had Punto stayed in? There's no way to know. But I do know I trusted Punto more in that situation than I trusted Buscher, and certainly more than I trusted Tolbert, offensively or defensively.
And keep in mind that we're talking about two games here in which Nick Punto didn't get a single base hit.
Oh, and the Division Series? Where Nick Punto became the goat despite being one of only a handful of players who actually showed up offensively (including my own beloved Delmon Young)?
Having Nick Punto on your team is whiplash-inducing, emotionally and even sometimes physically.
Happy Nick Punto Day.