Thursday, August 06, 2009

Perpetual Punto

It's amazing how predictable some things are.

During the All-Star break, I put together a bit of a rant about Nick Punto. I railed on his ghastly play up to that point in the season, and lamented that "no matter how poor his performance gets, he will seemingly always maintain a starting role on this club." Lo and behold, despite having batted just .226 since the day I wrote that article, Punto has started 15 of the team's 18 games. And while the acquisition of Orlando Cabrera would have seemingly nudged the underperforming Punto out of his starting job at shortstop and onto the bench, the move has instead only slid Punto over to second base, where he has started three of the team's four games since Cabrera's arrival.

Meanwhile, Brendan Harris has started just one of the Twins' past six games, and since Ron Gardenhire remains steadfastly opposed to letting him play second base, it appears that Harris has been essentially banished from any type of middle-infield duty. I guess that's what he gets for outhitting Punto by 56 points while posting a better fielding percentage than either Punto or Cabrera at short.

In the previously linked rant, I noted that Punto had "kept his offensive game afloat to some degree with a respectable .319 on-base percentage, buoyed by an impressive walk total of 32," adding that he had drawn an impressive 10 walks in 33 July plate appearances at that point. Yet, I went on to opine that there was no way this would last, stating that "there's simply no reason for pitchers to throw him anything but strikes until he shows he can actually hit them with any type of authority." In 59 plate appearances since then, Punto has drawn four walks and posted a .276 on-base percentage. In his past 37 plate appearances he's drawn exactly one walk, good for a .250 on-base percentage.

Predicting this outcome doesn't make me any sort of masterful prognosticator. This turn of events was pretty easy to foresee, which makes it all the more frustrating that Gardenhire willfully elects to ignore basic facts in order to keep writing his favorite pet into the starting lineup. I am not easily driven to frustration with matters like this, but this team is in the middle of a pennant race and needs all the help it can get; Gardenhire's stubborn refusal to take Punto out of the starting lineup is driving me close to insanity. Benching Harris in favor of Punto against left-handed pitchers -- as Gardy has the past two nights -- is particularly inexcusable, considering that Harris is batting .306 against southpaws this year and holds a solid 787 lifetime OPS against them.

I'm not saying Harris is having a great year, and I'm not saying he's the answer at second. But he is at the very least a competent hitter and if he's starting over Punto, this lineup suddenly has only one real hole. Does this trade-off lead to a defensive downgrade? Sure, but the negative effects can be reduced when Harris plays on days that a fly ball pitcher is on the mound, and certainly no one is saying that he needs to be starting every game. I don't buy that Harris' difficulties turning a double play here and there are going to cost the Twins more than Punto's constant rally-killing at-bats.

If the Twins truly want to stop second base from being a liability before this season is over, their best bet might come in the form of Steve Tolleson or Mark Grudzielanek. Until one of those players is deemed ready for major-league action, though, Gardenhire must discontinue his habit of starting Punto there every single day. Punto has his merits, but he's better served as a utility player and Harris' performance has not warranted a permanent benching when the alternative options are taken into account.

9 comments:

Weber said...

this is exactly why i didn't like the cabrera trade. sure he's been hitting nice since we aquired him, but he was bound to take at bats from harris, not punto or casilla. very frustrating. do you think gardy gets a cut of punto's contract?

Topper said...

More or less this has been Gardy's biggest problem since he ever laid eyes on Punto several years ago, no? And the problem hasn't really corrected itself unless Punto hurts his back or his finger or something and is forced out of the lineup.

It's easy to lament, but I don't see this changing -- either Grudz or Tolleson doesn't come up, or Gardy simply uses them as the primary back-up instead of Harris/Casilla.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly what I was thinking when we grabed Cabrera. Punto always finds himself in the lineup because "he hussles". But with this pennant race, we need players who can produce. Punto can't. He's best as a utility player, and/or a late game defensive relplacement. Harris should be getting time in instead of punto, especially with southpaws on the mound. Sure we can have punto play some second base, but not 3 outa 4 games. A good time to play punto is when harris is playing 3rd. I was happy to see punto leave this year, but of course the Twins signed him for 2 years, and gardy has his player, one that was like him when gardy was playing ball, which is probably why he likes him so much. I hope the Twins can make a move or grab someone this offseason to shift punto to the full-time utility role next year. But I'm sure Punto will be starting SS, and we'll be looking for some help later in that year to, only to move someone else and keep punto on the field. Heck we'll probably sign him for another 2-3 years.

Anonymous said...

Your rant before didn't make a lot of sense, but now it has validity (assuming Harris continues to sit). At the time of the first post, Punto was getting playing time at the expense of Casilla and Tolbert, which is hard to complain too much about. Now that there is a better option, I'd like to see Punto on the bench more.

But it's still not as black and white as you make it out to be. The big problem with this team is pitching, and if Gardy wants to put the best defense at his disposal on the field to help his pitchers, I can understand that.

I happen to agree with you, but the whole "Punto has pictures of Gardy" or "Gardy loves Punto because Punto reminds Gardy of the player he was" crap that has become the mantra of the STrib comments is just stupid. It's a funny off-the-cuff remark the first time you see it, but it's pretty old by now. (Not saying you're guilty of that)

Anonymous said...

Yup -- getting itchy for Grudzielanek.

Judd

Bryz said...

I don't believe that Harris is as bad defensively as Gardy claims. With regular playing time, he would be good for about 30 doubles and 10 HR. Besides, the Twins mainly field flyball pitchers, so why is there such an obsession about the infield defense? I'm not saying that the infield D can be ignored, but shouldn't the outfield D be of more importance?

Nick N. said...

I don't believe that Harris is as bad defensively as Gardy claims.

I'm with you. For what it's worth, Harris has a career UZR/150 at second base of -6.8. While that isn't good, it's better than his UZR at SS (-9.0) and WAY better than his UZR at third (-15.3). His range at second, while sub par, is not disastrous. But, Gardy will continue to hold it against him that he failed to smoothly turn a couple double plays there last year.

I'm not saying that the infield D can be ignored, but shouldn't the outfield D be of more importance?

On this team, absolutely. Which is why I've always been a huge believer that Gomez/Span must be starting the outfield, while I'm more flexible on starting lesser defenders in the infield in order to get better offensive production.

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