One year and three days ago, I did a piece on The Amazing Nick Punto. Unfortunately, his 2007 campaign hasn't been as productive.
It's hard to get down on a guy who tries as hard as Nick Punto. Really, the offensive deficiencies at the hot corner aren't even his fault; Punto is a player with the offensive upside of a backup middle infielder, not a starting third baseman. When Michael Cuddyer was given the right fielder's job going into 2006 and the Tony Batista experiment failed, Punto was one of a number of non-ideal third base choices to take over. He had a hot bat and found a way to excel to an extent he never had. This made it his job to lose coming into 2007, and there was nobody in the organization good enough to take it away from him. Now he's bearing the brunt of offensive criticism he shouldn't be responsible for bearing, but is.
Nick Punto is quick. He always hustles and gives leaves no doubt that every effort he exerts is the most effort he has to offer. His arm is accurate with enough strength to fire a ball across the diamond with some zip, and he certainly isn't afraid to get his jersey dirty. He's a leader vocally on the field and from the dugout, and he's a leader by example, giving everything he has every game. Inch-for-inch, he has the largest forearms after Popeye.
None of this excuses the fact that it's his performance that's helping cripple the Minnesota offense. Ninety-nine games into the season his OPS is .587, and he's collected sixteen extra-base hits in 313 at-bats. Gardenhire has made the best choice he can by moving Punto to the bottom of the order and thereby minimizing the damage, even if it is just by one plate appearance per game.
Let's compare Punto's performance to other primary third basemen in the American League, by both offensive and defensive metrics. Since Punto's strength is supposed to be his defense, I've ordered by Zone Rating.
Name Team AB EQA OPS+ VORP RF ZR
Rodriguez NYY 361 .340 186 60.8 2.63 .821
Metcalf TEX 76 .189 40 -6.1 2.22 .820
Inge DET 303 .254 95 5.1 2.83 .804
Beltre SEA 321 .275 116 17.0 3.02 .793
Chavez OAK 337 .256 101 6.4 2.75 .780
Mora BAL 298 .270 107 12.8 2.83 .774
Gordon KC 323 .235 74 -2.7 2.91 .765
Lowell BOS 343 .284 127 25.9 2.56 .761
Iwamura TB 239 .273 101 8.9 2.52 .756
Punto MIN 313 .216 59 -12.0 2.70 .747
Figgins LAA 274 .278 111 17.8 2.32 .747
Wigginton TB 368 .267 104 11.7 2.65 .743
Glaus TOR 250 .301 135 22.4 2.42 .736
Blake CLE 372 .275 119 18.8 2.66 .712
Fields CWS 147 .241 83 0.0 2.71 .706
With the Devil Rays' Ty Wigginton thrown into the mix for kicks and giggles, this should give you a pretty fair encompassing picture for each player. The first thing I want you to notice is that of the fifteen third basemen listed, Punto is arguably only better than one offensively. Arguably. And that one is only 24 and filling in for the injured Hank Blalock.
Defensively, Stats, Inc. insists that Punto will field balls in his range about as well as the bottom six third basemen in our league. His range factor places him very near the top third for American League third basemen. Unless I'm completely misinterpreting these statistics, which happened once or twenty times in the past, it seems that Punto is very much like Luis Rivas in results although not effort: LNP is very good at turning the balls he fields into outs...he just needs to get to the ball. But again, that's just my interpretation, I could be wrong. (Oh, Dennis Miller...)
None of these findings should be much of a revelation for anyone, and I realize that. What I intended to do what give us an exact view of where we sit in regards to our third base situation throughout the American League. It wouldn't be such a big deal if we were getting more production from our left fielder (most days of the week), designated hitter (Rondell was 0-for-4 in his return) and bench (it's true we have one), but we aren't and it's magnifying everything.
The 'little' guys who had career years last year: Redmond, Tyner, Bartlett and Punto. Redmond is doing what he can and Bartlett has had a good start to the second half, but Tyner has been getting starts as the designated hitter, and he's not even doing as well as he did last summer, and we had no reason to believe he would. We just discussed Punto. There aren't any supplemental players to pick up the slack this year, and as we've seen day-in and day-out, the bottom third of the lineup isn't offering much help for the cause.
This summer, there aren't any easy solutions. In 2006 most of us cheered when Batista and Castro were lifted in favor of Punto and Bartlett. There is no cavalry this time around, neither inside the organization nor, seemingly, outside of it. More than likely the Twins, and Nick Punto, will be left to look after their own mess.
Minnesota is stuck with one of, if not the worst performing third baseman at the plate in the American League, and it's hurting our chances. I like Punto, I want him to succeed because if one extra hit per week fell in he'd have much better numbers with all the walks he takes...and like I said, it's hard to not like a guy who gives it so much. But the reality is that the bat just isn't there. Nick Punto belongs on the bench.