Everyone hates Nick Punto. My brother, a fellow Twins fan, actively wishes harm upon him, under the logic that Punto can't make the Twins worse if he's injured. Every time his name is mentioned in a discussion thread, it's inevitably followed by a dozen calls to release, bench, or defenestrate him. Luis Rivas, who was so bad that he led the Twins to try Michael Cuddyer at second base, received more respect in the Twins blogosphere than Punto does right now.
Yet, just a few short years ago, Nick Punto represented everything that was great about the Twins. When Ozzie Guillen coined the "piranhas" term, Punto was unquestionably their leader. He was like an evolutionary Denny Hocking - he was the ultimate utility man, someone who could play any position well and switch hit, and he always played hard and looked like he was having fun. Everyone loved Nick Punto.
In the span of four years, Nick Punto went from the most overrated player on the Twins to the most underrated (or, at least, most despised) player on the Twins. My question: Why can't we properly rate him?Part of the problem, of course, is that Punto is so polarizing. It's not that everyone has an opinion on Punto - we all have an opinion on Jose Morales, too. But no one suggests we release Jose Morales outright, even when he gives up stolen bases to guys who run like they should be in wheelchairs. I've come up with three primary reasons why the opinions on Nick Punto are so strong:
Inconsistency - In one of the more bizarre patterns I've ever seen in Major League Baseball, Punto has gone four consecutive years without putting up a batting average within 20 points of his career mark. His OPS has either increased or decreased by over 100 for three straight years (preceded by an 89-point swing). For all the "you know what you're getting from Nick Punto - great defense and no offense" comments we see and hear, we really don't have any idea what we're getting from Nick Punto offensively, unless you put stock in the even/odd years pattern.
His reputation is especially hurt by the fact that his good and bad years have alternated - he has entered his bad years with high expectations, and he has entered his good years as a part-time player whose positive contribution isn't noticed until the end of the year, if at all. In 2008, the primary response to people pointing out that Punto had a better offensive year than 2006 seemed to be "Really? I hadn't noticed."
Style - Remember the Fire Joe Morgan blog? They were the greatest mockers of baseball "journalism" on the planet, and one of their favorite targets was David Eckstein. Their issue wasn't so much Eckstein himself, but the way he was inevitably described: "Scrappy." "Gritty." "A grinder." "A guy who's not afraid to get his uniform dirty." The fawning descriptions of a good-but-not-great player made an excellent target for FJM's hyper-logical mockery. On the Twins, Nick Punto is the Grinder in Chief. No player on Minnesota's team embodies the "little guy who gets by on guts and hustle" like Nick Punto.
Part of FJM's legacy (which was generally positive) was a backlash against Eckstein-esque players in the baseball blogosphere. Those players were so overrated by the mainstream media that the blogosphere appeared to develop an active "anti-grinder" bias in response, and Punto bears the brunt of that on the Twins.
Playing time - Inevitably, long anti-Punto rants are tempered by, "You know, it's not really that I hate Punto; it's that I hate Gardy for playing him so much." Punto has, during his five years with the Twins, gotten an extraordinary amount of playing time for a guy who's nominally a utility infielder. Much of the Punto hate is described as a side effect of a "bigger problem", that Ron Gardenhire prefers scrappy utility types over players with more offensive skill or upside.
For all those reasons, Nick Punto has become the player Twins fans love to hate. But I can't bring myself to jump on that bandwagon...
I guess some of my feelings stem from the fact that in my own sports career, I am Nick Punto. In youth baseball, my hitting prowess topped out at "mediocre", but I was always good with the glove, and I could play any position. Now that I'm an overweight 30-year-old playing slow-pitch church league softball, I'm mostly a singles hitter who's competent wherever I'm needed in the field. I can't hate Nick Punto's game, because what does that say about mine?
Beyond that, though, Punto just isn't that bad a player. Yeah, he's overpaid. So are a hundred other players in Major League Baseball. If you're going to have an overpaid guy on your team, it may as well be the guy who has arguably the best combination of defensive skill and versatility in the league, especially if he's only overpaid by a couple million dollars a year. He also possesses the ability to get on base - the single most valuable offensive skill in baseball - even when he's not hitting well, thanks to a walk rate that he is able to maintain (or even increase) when his batting average dips. He never will hit for power, but the Twins have seven other guys who are paid to do that, and none of them would be Gold Glove candidates at three different positions (okay, maybe Joe Mauer would).
Nick Punto is not a great Major League Baseball player. He is what he is - a great defender who can play any infield position, may or may not provide offense, and is best-suited to be a utility infielder. He will win the hearts of traditionalists with his hustle and grit and heart. He will earn the ire of bloggers with his slides into first and inconsistency and popped-up bunts. He will continue to get regular playing time for the Twins while the aforementioned bloggers make their "Gardy's love child" jokes.
Nick Punto is not a great Major League Baseball player. But I'm glad he's on my favorite team.