One of these things is not like the other...
Remember cringing with every plate appearance from Nick Punto last year? I guess I wouldn't blame you if you didn't, whether you've constructed a mental block to protect your psyche, or whether he was up and then back to the bench again so quickly that you didn't have time to form a memory.
Of course, this year's version has been nothing but successful at the plate, when he's been healthy. Without checking, it looks like he's getting fewer called third strikes, has levelled out his swing and is, in general, just taking better at-bats. Of course, memory is a bad thing to judge mechanical improvements by, since theose memories can be tainted by the results.
With checking, some of those things can be confirmed. Nick isn't just taking better at-bats, he's been getting better results...and not just because he's been lucky. He's hitting the ball harder and, judging from how he's been using the strike zone so far this season, he's been seeing the ball better as well. If not that, he's recognizing his pitches on a far more regular basis.
Notice two things in the table below--first, how Punto's '08 compares to his '07, and then how his '08 compares to his '06.
Last year he was hitting fewer line drives, but more ground balls and fly balls, which of course meant easier outs. He was also striking out significantly more often, which, oddly enough, also meant easier outs. As a result, even though he was taking longer at-bats he wasn't making as good of use of the extra pitches he was seeing. Yes, he walked; his BB% was up slightly and he really wasn't swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone. But he was swinging at far fewer pitches that were actually in the strike zone. Now that, Watson, is curious.
Clues: Higher pitches per plate appearance, laying off bad pitches, laying off good pitches, striking out more often but not walking any less. Diagnosis: Punto wasn't seeing the ball, and was forcing the issue. Walks, contact, power...he was trying to force all of it. Even though his overall contact wasn't down, it was what happened when he made contact that tells the story.
Now those similarities between what have been, to this point, the best two offensive seasons for LNP: Very solid contact, leading to more line drives, leading to harder-hit balls, leading to balls in play that are more difficult to convert into outs, leading to reaching base more often. And with Punto's best offensive skill being the ability to get on base, that comes in very handy. For LNP cannot survive on walks alone. Additionally--fewer strikeouts, swinging at more balls in the strikezone, maintaining a good walk-to-strikeout ratio--it has to be said, 2008 looks like it could be a very good year for last season's whipping boy.
Compared to 2006 and 2007, Punto's numbers this year are based off of relatively few trips to the dish. But my ultimate point isn't to say "Oh, look at Punto, he's having a great year!", it's to point out all of the things he's doing differently. Because a lot of those things have a lot of similarities with what he did two years ago, when Nick had his best professional season to date. If he can keep that up, the Twins won't need to worry about Brendan Harris' defense at shorstop, or if Adam Everett can come back healthy. They'll have their answer.