Monday, July 16, 2007
His Agony Is Ours
That's the picture that adorns this MLB.com article about the trials and tribulations of our old pal, Nick Punto. I'm not going to say that it's the most fitting snapshot I've ever seen, but it's probably close. That grimace sums up his season in a way that no word count can.
Trashing Punto at this point is probably unnecessary and overkill, but I remain continually frustrated by the way he has been used this season. There are a few quotes in that MLB.com article that really show what I'm talking about. Torii Hunter selects Punto as his "pick to click," citing some kind of adjustment that Punto is sure to make, for example. But there are two things that jump out from that article that really get to the heart of the Punto Problem; one comes from the writer of the article (Leslie Parker), and the other comes straight from Ron Gardenhire.
In the middle of that article, Parker writes that Justin Morneau "knows Punto will eventually turn it on." That's all well and good, but take a gander at the quote from Morneau to back up that assertion:
"Everyone's pulling for Punto in this clubhouse. He plays hard every day. He wants to win as hard as anybody, and to see him get a big hit like that [triple on Sunday], it's huge and hopefully it'll get him going. We need him to get those big hits."
Yessir, it sure sounds like Morneau "knows" Punto is going to have a monster second half. Yeesh. The whole story carries that same air, really; speaking of Punto in reverential tones and acting like his .220 batting average is the great mystery of our age. Why do people fall for Punto? For the same reason that David Eckstein is a World Series MVP, I suppose; he's "scrappy," he "plays hard," and so on. I guess the only thing he doesn't do is "play well."
None of this Punto infatuation would be much of an issue if it was contained to the media, but that clearly is not the case. A bit farther down the article, Ron Gardenhire is quoted as saying that "our team gets pretty fired up with Nicky. We all cheer for him pretty hard. We all understand what he's going through. Some of us have been through those things more than others, and we understand those things." The emphasis is mine, of course. Simply put, Gardy relates to Punto and doesn't have the heart to bury him on the bench. Gardenhire knows how it feels to be a .232 career hitter that bounces around the infield spots. That infatuation with Punto that is merely a nuisance in the press becomes an albatross in the dugout.
The tragedy here is, of course, that Punto can actually be a useful player. That mid-dive grimace shows why; he does play hard, he's a useful defensive player, and he can run a bit. You could do much worse on a major league bench than Nick Punto. But there isn't really anyone else to put there at this point. Gardy might be inclined towards Punto, but he doesn't even have a real alternative. I think we all knew coming into this season that expecting Nick Punto to be a competent every day third baseman was crazy; halfway through, it's looking like negligence.
The Twins are currently 6 games behind the division-leading Tigers. To see just how much Punto has contributed to that deficit, the stat "Wins Above Replacement Player" is useful. Punto's WARP1 (roughly, the number of wins he has contributed above what a bargain-bin, major-league-minimum player could provide) is currently .2. Basically replacement level. To put that in context: Baseball Prospectus' glossary states that "a team which is at replacement level in all three of batting, pitching, and fielding will be an extraordinarily bad team, on the order of 20-25 wins in a 162-game season." To be taking such an extreme hit at third base has been crippling.
Punto hasn't been the only player dragging the Twins down, of course. But he remains unique in the way he seems to receive such a free pass for such extraordinary suckitude. He can throw himself around the field, slide into first base, and grimace all he wants, but unless the Twins begin to take third base seriously we can all start dreaming of Liriano and the 2008 season.