Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Madness

As we move past the All-Star break and embark upon the baseball season's unofficial second half, local discussion will increasingly center on what the Twins can do to make up their four-game deficit in the AL Central standings and mount a late charge that results in a division championship. This club has some glaring weaknesses which will almost certainly need to be addressed if they are to make a run over the final two-and-a-half months of the season. Whether it's through trades, promotion or lineup tweaking, those who aren't helping this team win need to be replaced by better producers. One particular player on the roster has stood out to me more and more as a chief example of this: Nick Punto.

This isn't an easy article for me to write, because in all honesty I don't mind Punto. In the past, I have defended him against staunch criticism from local fans and writers. I was one of the seemingly few people who thought the contract he received from the Twins this past offseason was a reasonable one. I understand the value that a player with his skillset can bring to the table. He's versatile, he's got a good glove, he takes a patient approach at the plate, he is a consummate teammate and he hustles his ass off at all times. He's the type of player I enjoy watching.

But there's simply no way around the fact that he's been terrible this year. He entered the All-Star break with a .201 average, and over the first 63 games of the season he has managed a whopping four extra-base hits (all doubles), leading to a .234 slugging percentage. During his disastrous 2007 campaign, Punto hit .210 with a .271 slugging percentage.

Now, Punto has kept his offensive game afloat to some degree with a respectable .319 on-base percentage, buoyed by an impressive walk total of 32. In the month of July, Punto has worked 10 walks in 33 plate appearances, which has enabled him to reach base at an excellent .394 clip in spite of a paltry .130 batting average. Now, I will say that it simply blows my mind that opposing pitchers have thrown the ball out of the strike zone often enough for Punto to walk in nearly one-third of his plate appearances this month in spite of the fact that he's shown almost zero ability to hit the baseballl; but, I just can't believe it's going to last. There's no doubt that Punto has shown a keen eye at the plate and an ability to lay off pitches out of the zone, but there's simply no reason for pitchers to throw him anything but strike until he shows he can actually hit them with any type of authority.

If Punto were an elite shortstop who brought the type of defensive value that Adam Everett did in his prime, the situation could be viewed a bit differently. But Punto is merely a good defensive player, as both fielding metrics and observation will attest.

The troubling thing about Punto is that no matter how poor his performance gets, he will seemingly always maintain a starting role on this club. He has started in each of the Twins past 12 games and has basically been written into the starting lineup whenever he's been healthy enough to play over the past couple months. The recent recall of Alexi Casilla from the minors would seemingly indicate that Punto -- who has been starting at second base regularly -- could be nudged to the bench, but there've been indications that he'll now take the lion's share of playing time at shortstop.

Never mind that Brendan Harris -- who has been far from spectacular offensively in his own right -- holds an OPS that is more than 150 points higher than Punto's. Never mind that in the final game before the All-Star break, Harris smacked three extra-base hits, which is of course one less than Punto has managed in 223 plate appearances this year. Never mind that Harris has held his own defensively at shortstop and actually rates very similarly to Punto there according to UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) this season, in an admittedly small sample size. In the eyes of Ron Gardenhire, it seems that Punto simply must be a regular player.

Gardenhire continually reminds us of his warped view of Punto. In a Sid Hartman column printed from Sunday's Star Tribune, Gardy rattled off a number of over-the-top quotes inflating Punto's value to a ballclub, intimating that he has been one of the team's most valuable players because of his defense and claiming that when "everybody else does their job in the lineup, Nick Punto is fantastic."

At some point, members of the Twins organization have to start wondering if this man is delusional. Under no circumstances is a .234 slugging percentage "fantastic." And even if that type of production were tolerable in a lineup where everyone else is hitting, the simple fact is that this lineup already contains a several black holes as is. Punto's contributions are not "fantastic" and they are not helping this team win -- far from it.

Yet, there doesn't seem to be much doubt that Punto will play out the rest of the year as a regular starter. I generally like Gardenhire as a manager for several reasons, but his tendency to run the team based on personal feelings and preferences is beyond maddening. It's downright unprofessional. The situation that is unfolding with Punto is tantamount to an unqualified employee in another line of work receiving undeserved promotions because he sucked up and worked his way into the good graces of his boss. I can't imagine that the majority of people in the Twins' front office or even players on the team have a hard time seeing that Punto is clearly better suited as a utility man at this point in time; at what point does an organizational desire to win games override Gardenhire's stubborn fixation?

The Twins need to get better production from the middle infield, specifically from second base, where they've gotten a miserable 519 OPS this year. I doubt that replacing Punto with Casilla at second is going to provide the type of meaningful jolt this team could use, and I'm nearly certain that inserting Casilla at second while sliding Punto to short to displace Harris -- who's been the team's only competent hitter at a middle-infield spot this year -- will not help the situation at all.

The Twins must look to the minors or to other major-league rosters in order to address this frustrating dilemma. And whoever they call upon to help must dislodge Punto from his starting spot. Even if that means that someone has to go forcefully remove the lineup pencil from Gardenhire's hands.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more, however Gardy is going to be here at least the next couple so the only solution is to package LNP in a trade where the Twins take on his salary. I truly believe if the Twins go get Sanchez, big if, that LNP would wind up at SS which negates a large part of the Sanchez value.

LNP and Gardy need to be seperated.

And as far as the two hole goes, Gardy needs to move Mauer back up and someone else needs to play their way into the 2 hole. Until then: Span, Mauer, Morneau.

Anonymous said...

if they aren't going to make a trade, bring up tolleson (once casilla falls apart again) and leave harris at short. punto should be pinch running and playing as a defensive replacement late in the game and otherwise starting once every 5 games maximum. gardy needs to pull his head out. punto does have some value, just not as an everyday player.

Topper said...

As the first comment says, if Sanchez OR Tolleson is brought to our team to fill 2B, there's a good likelihood that Gardy just moves Punto over to SS, which is just as bad as before.

Reading that article about Mauer and how Morneau thinks he wants to play for a contender, it just really worries me that we're never going to make the aggressive roster moves we need to in order to field a team Mauer will feel comfortable in.

If Gardy stays at the helm, something needs to happen to keep him away from his futile middle infielders.

John said...

Nick, where are these indications that he'll be starting at short? I haven't seen that, but I may have just overlooked them.

I've also been on the positive side of the Punto spectrum, so I will point out that his OBP is .319. I dont' give a damn what his slugging percentage is. He's not giving up outs. But it is worth noting that his defense earlier this year was very bad. Not Tolbert bad, not Casilla bad, but bad.

And Harris has been brutal in July. Hopefully Gardy just plays the hot hand. Punto might be hotter than Harris right now. Here's a crazy stat: Punto is hitting just .120 in July. But his OBP is .389.

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention the obvious factor that in my mind justifies Punto starting: the alternatives.

Hasn't Punto been the second best middle infielder this year? As bad as Punto has been, Casilla and Tolber have not done much to demand playing time.

Beth said...

The advantege of being small is that the strike zone is smaller, thus making it more difficult for a pitcher to throw a strike. Add that to good pitch selection, and presto: a lot of walks.

Nick N. said...

Nick, where are these indications that he'll be starting at short? I haven't seen that, but I may have just overlooked them.

I've read an article or two about Casilla's call-up that basically stated that Gardenhire's plan was to insert Casilla at second while sliding Punto over to short. Can't track them down right now.

I've also been on the positive side of the Punto spectrum, so I will point out that his OBP is .319. I dont' give a damn what his slugging percentage is. He's not giving up outs.

First of all, let's not kid ourselves into thinking .319 is a great on-base percentage. It's below-average, and certainly not good enough to override his execrable AVG/SLG. And the only reason Punto's OBP is that high is because he's been drawing a crazy number of walks, but as I said in the article I just can't see that continuing. Say what you will about not caring about slugging percentage, pitchers will not throw balls to hitters who they don't fear; otherwise NL pitchers would walk a lot more frequently in their at-bats. Find me the last example of a guy who had a slugging percentage under .250 who had a league-average on-base percentage.

Punto isn't going to be able to maintain his on-base rate unless he starts hitting the ball more. And I'm just not convinced that's going to happen.

Here's a crazy stat: Punto is hitting just .120 in July. But his OBP is .389.

I think that stat was included in my article :)

The advantege of being small is that the strike zone is smaller, thus making it more difficult for a pitcher to throw a strike. Add that to good pitch selection, and presto: a lot of walks.

That's a fair point, but major-league pitchers can hit their spots pretty damn well. If height really has that much of an impact, well hey, I'm 5-foot-9. I'd be happy to go out there with the bat on my shoulder and see how many walks I could work!

thrylos98 said...

Well...

maybe the real problem here is not Punto (he is who he is), but Gardenhire as you have alluded a bit in this piece. And maybe what can put this team over the top is a move like Colorado: Get rid of Gardenhire and some of his coaches and get a manager who would make a lineup based on best available players, manage the pitching staff correctly and not make foolish in game decisions.

serq said...

Hey Nick-

Check this out: http://stickandballguy.com/
blog/2009/07/15/props-at-the-break/

To sum up: Punto's PrOPS is 170 points higher than his OPS through the first half, and his LD% is only .4% lower than it was last year. The whole article is worth a read, but how does this impact your analysis in this post?

ca said...

I'm going to stay on the Punto defender train for a little longer. His BABIP this year is .243, suggesting he's been ridiculously unlucky. If he had enough PAs to qualify, that figure would rank him 7th lowest in the majors among qualifiers. Punto's career BABIP is .299, and his batted ball numbers aren't drastically different from his career rates, so I anticipate a stronger second half from him, at least by his standards.

Not saying that Punto is terrific or anything, but I think that at the moment there are other players more deserving of being shown the bench/door.

Anonymous said...

It seems like Gardy has been rational with the way he's distributed the playing time to the players at his disposal. Who should be taking Punto's at bats? If your answer is Orlando Hudson, you can't blame Gardy for that.

Player AB OBP
Harris 273 318
Punto 179 319
Tolbert 129 272
Casilla 111 242

Nick N. said...

Serq and CA: There are some pretty good arguments suggesting that Punto has not been nearly as bad offensively as his numbers show (the same can be said for Brian Buscher, by the way) but his production over the first 3.5 months of the season has been downright putrid. He might and probably will get better over the remainder of the season, but I still think the Twins need a more legitimate hitter in that middle-infield spot, particularly if the other one is going to be manned by Alexi Casilla.

Anon: It's a fair point. I guess my frustration isn't so much with the fact that Punto has played as much as he has up to this point, but more that I fully expect him to continue starting no matter how dreadful his performance becomes.

Juanie said...

Punto only seems to perform during contract years. At least next year is a contract year for Punto! Which means he'll probably hit about .240 ...

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