Nick Punto and The Little Things

Since Ron Gardenhire took the reins in Minnesota in 2002, the Twins have played .547 baseball and won five AL Central Division titles. Somehow, they have managed to succeed in a small market while teams like the Royals, Pirates, Brewers, Reds, Nationals, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Marlins are mired in relative futility. Even the brilliant Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics couldn’t maintain their small-market success in the latter part of the decade.

Meanwhile, the Twins have maintained their competitive edge, highly due to their reliance on “doing the little things right.” Never mind that they’ve fielded players like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Johan Sanatana, Torii Hunter, and Joe Nathan. It’s the little things.

One player on the 2009 Minnesota Twins that fits this mold exactly is Nick Punto . Yes, the same Nick Punto that Derek Jeter threw out on a baserunning gaffe in Game Three of this year’s ALDS. Outside of that one instance, Punto has the perfect Minnesota Twin reputation: light hitter, great defender, runs the bases well, can move runners over, and can pick up hits in clutch situations.

Punto certainly is a light hitter. Since 2005, Punto has accrued at least 375 plate appearances in every season. In these seasons, Punto’s wOBA ranges from .260 to .324. Punto simply has no power, and his on-base skills don’t mitigate this deficiency. In a league that averages an ISO between .155 and .160, Punto has never posted an ISO above .098 – his career rate is .076. Combine that with a career walk rate that hovers around average and you’ve got a consistently below average hitter. His only near average years came with fluctuations in BABIP in ’07 and ’09, where his BABIP was nearly 30 points above his career norm both years.

Punto’s defensive reputation appears real. He is a far above average shortstop and third baseman, and in a sample of about 1.5 seasons has a +16 and +20 UZR/150 respectively at these positions. At 2B, where he has a similar sample, UZR doesn’t like him nearly as much, grading him as a +5 2B. Although these samples aren’t large enough to conclusively say that Punto is an Adam Everett-esque fielder, they do suggest his fielding ability is well above average, especially on the left side of the infield.

Now, the other things reflect what are generally considered “the little things.” For baserunning, Baseball Prospectus has a handy (if poorly implemented) tool where they display a player’s EQBRR, or Equivalent Baserunning Runs – including SB/CS as well as other measurements of baserunning such as taking the extra base. Punto’s hardly been a world beater. Since 2005, he’s been worth +6 runs. He had an excellent baserunning season in 2009, at +4 runs (the spread is rarely more than a win on either side), but his true talent is probably nearer the average of +1 run he’s shown in this span.

The other two skills mentioned above involve situational hitting. If we were to see evidence of Punto’s ability to “move runners over ” or perform better with men on base, we should see this difference in his RE24 numbers, based on run expectancies of base-out states, and his wOBA numbers (check this out for more on “little things” ). We don’t really see any consistent evidence either way. Overall, Punto’s actually been five runs worse by RE24 than wOBA, indicating that he is actually worse in situations with runners on. The data doesn’t suggest much predictability, as the numbers fluctuate from -8 to +7 depending on the season.

Similarly, if he’s a “clutch” hitter, we’d see this in his “clutch” stat that we calculate here at FanGraphs. Once again, there is no conclusion to gain from this data. Punto has been +.45 wins better in the clutch, according to the calculation, but again we see wild fluctuation (from -.65 to +.72) and what could possibly be interpreted as skill is likely just random variation.

Nick Punto may be heralded as one of those rare players who, despite having little tangible hitting talent, does those little things so well that he can bring a team to the top. Don’t believe it – it’s not true. Look at Punto for what he really is – a tremendous defender who managed to put together a couple of seasons with a solid BABIP. He’s a great bench player who can adequately fill in at any non-1B infield position, but any team that starts him wont’ be a perennial playoff contender. That is, unless that team’s catcher is Joe Mauer.



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Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.


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Kevin S.
Member
Kevin S.
6 years 11 months ago

This post made me smile. Keep it up, Jack!

Big Oil
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Big Oil
6 years 11 months ago

Agreed, good read Jack.

Logan
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Logan
6 years 11 months ago

This was a good read, if a bit Cameron-esque. For all the shit CC takes (Carson Cistulli, not the Yankees ace), he has a unique voice. This sight often reads like DC, his apostles, and CC. There are definitely worse things, but still…

Beadlemania
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Beadlemania
6 years 11 months ago

Punto had way better years in 06 and 08 than he did in 07 and 09.

neuter_your_dogma
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neuter_your_dogma
6 years 11 months ago

Agreed! a nice player in a reserve role who won’t hurt you in the field and can give your Chase Utleys and Tulos a breather here and there. He can also babysit and teach younger players. Great review!

Neil
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Neil
6 years 11 months ago

“Somehow, they have managed to succeed in a small market while teams like the Royals, Pirates, Brewers, Reds, Nationals, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Marlins are mired in relative futility.”

Fair enough on the other teams in the AL Central and even the NL Central – but the Jays, Orioles, Nats, and Marlins? Even if they were posting results that were comparable to the Twins, (and the Jays, many years, have done so) they play in tougher divisions and play better teams more often. The “somehow” is easy to figure out – the Twins have been lucky enough to be the biggest fish in a very small pond.

DavidCEisen
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DavidCEisen
6 years 11 months ago

The St. Paul Minneapolis metro area also has a larger population than the St. Louis metro area. Meanwhile the ‘small market’ Nationals play in the 8th largest metro area of the United States and the Marlins play in the 7th largest.

I’m always confused as to what constitutes a small market team. Kansas City makes sense, but when there are nearly 5.5 million people living in the Miami metro area do the Marlins?

Pete
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Pete
6 years 11 months ago

Due to they way the municipal boundaries are drawn, very few people live in St. Louis city, but the St. Louis Metro Area is quite large. Roughly 1 million live in St. Louis county, plus 300,000 in the city (which is zoned independently), plus a couple hundred thousand from nearby MO/IL counties such as Jefferson, St. Charles, and Madison. Even though St. Louis itself is comparatively small, a whole lot of people live relatively nearby. I believe the Twin Cities and the STL Metro Area are roughly the same size…

…which still doesn’t make sense why some teams are small market teams and others are not. They really should just call them low and high-payroll teams or something like that.

walkoffblast
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walkoffblast
6 years 11 months ago

Yeah, the low payroll teams are not always at a financial disadvantage because of the “size of their market.” It seems to be the case its impossible to consistently get people to watch baseball in florida. The nationals are probably hurting because they have to give a lot of money to Angelos.

tyrone
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tyrone
6 years 11 months ago

I wonder if there’s some measure of market size based on “potential revenue,” or something similar, rather than just population. The Twins had a terrible lease in the Metrodome that, for example, gave them zero revenue from luxury suites (those are controlled by the Vikings) and a bad deal on concessions. Of course, that particular example will be moot next year, but things like that ought to be reflected in teams’ market status.

Another thing to consider is that historically great teams, in place for a long time with large fanbases, probably find it easier to market themselves. I imagine that the Cardinals have an easier time generating revenue than the Marlins even though the Marlins are in a bigger city.

neuter_your_dogma
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neuter_your_dogma
6 years 11 months ago

Gotta agree. According to the OMB, Marlins’ metro area ranks 6th in population, DC 7th, MN 16th, StL 18th. Boston ranks 11th for comparison. NY, LA and Chicago arguably split their metro areas. Seems like “small market” in most cases should be renamed “small owner,” as some owners have failed to brand and sell their product in a way that generates competetive revenue and increased payrolls.

MU789
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MU789
6 years 11 months ago

neuter:

The thing with Boston is, while their market may be 11th, they really have the entire NE market, not just the Boston met area. When you include Maine, Vermont, NH, RI and parts of CT their base is pretty big.

When the Cardinals were the furthest west and furthest south of all the teams, they had a large fan base outside of the St Louis area. Then they put teams in Houston and CA and the Cards market got a lot smaller. Since MLB is not going to put a team in Maine, the Red Sox have a permanent lock on New England.

Kevin S.
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Kevin S.
6 years 11 months ago

tyrone, why don’t you check in with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, then let me know how well that’s worked out for them.

mike
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mike
6 years 11 months ago

I agree with Neil. Geography has played a large role as to why the Twins have been successful.

lookatthosetwins
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lookatthosetwins
6 years 11 months ago

The Twins are 83-46 against the National League in the last 7 years. I’m sure they’d be at the bottom of the barrell if they were over there.

Joe Braga
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Joe Braga
6 years 11 months ago

I would say Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau have a little more to do with it than ‘Geography.’

Neil, comparing the Twins to the Nats is completely retarded.

Great post Jack Moore, I hate Nick Punto.

walkoffblast
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walkoffblast
6 years 11 months ago

That Sanatana guy used to have something to do with it as well.

Neil
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Neil
6 years 11 months ago

The Nats have just been all kinds of awful, but I’m talking about their context – their division – not the team, as such. I’m comparing the Nats’ competition to the Twins’ competition.

lookatthosetwins
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lookatthosetwins
6 years 11 months ago

Yes, and your conclusion is wrong. The nationals play an easier schedule than the Twins. The AL wins 57% of interleague games. You can’t compare AL and NL teams without making a large adjustment.

Joe Braga
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Joe Braga
6 years 11 months ago

I would say having Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau plays a much larger effect on the Twins winning than Geography.

Neil, sweet comparison of the Twins and Nats.

wobatus
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wobatus
6 years 11 months ago

Frankly, this is shooting fish in a barrel. Punto is good field no hit. Fathom that. Which is better than Casilla this year who was bad field worse hit. Is Punto also more “heads up” than casilla? I don’t know, nor do I care. Things like clutch hitting being vastly over-rated, if not there at all, isn’t this kind of “duly noted” by now?

But a fielding team with Punto, Gomez, Span…not bad for the guys like Blackburn who put the ball in play so much. Maybe not the Mariners, but not too bad. And the twins weren’t exactly starved for runs this year. Playing a glove man was pretty rational.

wobatus
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wobatus
6 years 11 months ago

Actually, the twins were horrible in UZR overall, one of the worst teams in baseball. But 4th in baseball in runs scored. All the more reason playing Punto made sense for them. Now I am wondering how Blackburn does it. :)

lookatthosetwins
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lookatthosetwins
6 years 11 months ago

They would have been a lot better if they had Gomez in there every day. Gomez’s positive contributions plus not having either Delmon or Cuddy out there would have helped a lot.

Kevin S.
Member
Kevin S.
6 years 11 months ago

You do realize that the defensive gains of playing Gomez every day over Cuddyer are completely offset by the offensive losses, right?

Seideberg
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Seideberg
6 years 11 months ago

I feel little sympathy for the Twins. Not only is Minneapolis-St. Paul a large market, its owner, Carl Pohlad, had a net worth of 3.6 billion, or roughly 3x that of George Steinbrenner, when he died, turning a 40 million dollar investment in the Twins into a value of 330 million today. He was unwilling to spend an extra 10 or 20 or 30 million dollars here and there, when it could have been the difference between losing in the LDS and having a shot at the World Series. What’s the use of owning a baseball team for all those years, and dying with 3.6 billion dollars in the bank, when you could have had 3.4 billion and maybe won the World Series once or twice? The Twins averaged 93 wins a season from 2002-2006 (excluding their down year in 2005).

If the Twins don’t resign Mauer, the prodigal son of Minnesota, and then have the gall to complain about finances, as they open up in a brand-new field designed by Populous (formerky HOK Sport), two thirds of which was paid by taxpayers, they will lose all semblance of respectability.

tyrone
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tyrone
6 years 11 months ago

Huh? Minneapolis-St. Paul is not quite as “small market” as many people think, but I doubt anyone would consider it a large market. I also imagine that Pohlad, rich as he was, would not want to lose $30 million a year on one of his ventures. Most guys who run businesses don’t subsidize them with $30 million of their own money on a yearly basis because if they did things like that, they wouldn’t be rich in the first place. Somehow I doubt Steinbrenner is taking a massive annual loss on the Yankees.

MU789
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MU789
6 years 11 months ago

It is always funny how easy people are willing to spend millions of someone else’s money.

James d.
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James d.
6 years 11 months ago

The concept of not spending your team into financial ruin? I support that.
But let’s not pretend Pohlad, a man whose financial start was foreclosing on farms during the Depression (at least, according to Wikipedia), wasn’t cheap. He was, and it undoubtedly has hurt the Twins over the years at the gate and on the field.
The spending aside (and that’s surely affected by the terrible Metrodome and the corresponding deal to play there), Pohlad was also begging for baseball for years to eliminate his team to pocket $150 million or so. That was a low point for him and baseball.
On the balance, however, he was probably a very good owner because he let the people he hired do their jobs without micromanaging or freaking out over comparably small things. I live in D.C.; any Redskins fan would love if Daniel Snyder was a little more Pohlad-like.

Andrew
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Andrew
6 years 11 months ago

Having watched both play a good deal, I’m willing to say that Punto and Everett are similar defensively.

I also believe that saying the Twins win due to fundamentals and the “little things” hasn’t been true for a few years now.

zebano
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zebano
6 years 5 months ago

Specifically, it hasn’t been true since Gardenhire took over for T.K.

MFG
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MFG
6 years 11 months ago

Seideberg: please stop typing. When your argument is ‘why bother owning a team if you’re not willing to lose $200M’, then you need to stop typing. Just stop.

Rob in CT
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Rob in CT
6 years 11 months ago

He’s got a point, even if he overstated it. Their market isn’t that small, and more investment in the team might well help them leverage said market better. When CBS ran the Yankees, they did an absolutely miserable job of leveraging the best market in the country. Steinbrenner took over, invested heavily and reaped the rewards. Easier to do in NY than MN? Absolutely. But the general idea – invest in your product, and more people will come – strikes me as valid. Doing so wouldn’t turn the Twins into the Yankees. But it might have turned them into the Twins + a couple more good players (a damn good team). They do a lot of things well. It’s not hard to imagine that taking a chance and running a loss for a year or two in exchange for a title would be worthwhile.

Rob in CT
Guest
Rob in CT
6 years 11 months ago

I mean, seriously… isn’t there a happy medium between the guy who won’t run in the red at all (I don’t mean every year, I mean when the team sees a window of opportunity to augment a strong core with some FA pickups or trades that mean taking on payroll) & actively attempted to have his team contracted (!!) and Steinbrenner-esq spending?

WY
Guest
WY
6 years 11 months ago

“If we were to see evidence of Punto’s ability to “move runners over ” or perform better with men on base, we should see this difference in his RE24 numbers, based on run expectancies of base-out states, and his wOBA numbers (check this out for more on “little things” ).”

But isn’t it also the case that many successful instances of “moving the runner over” decrease the team’s RE24? In other words, you have a slightly lower RE with a runner on third and one out as opposed to a runner on second and none out, but the former is one common result of “moving the runner over.” I’m not saying Punto is necessarily above average at moving runners, but I wonder if RE24 is the best way to try to measure that (or IF there is a way to measure it).

Jack Moore
Guest
6 years 11 months ago

The team’s RE would indeed be lower, but whereas the penalty for making an out in wRAA is roughly -.31 (the linear weights value of an out), the penalty in RE24 would be closer to 0 (I don’t have time to find any actual values right now, but they should be easy enough to figure out with any RE table). And so in that case, his outs with runners on base wouldn’t cost him as much.

JoeR43
Member
JoeR43
6 years 11 months ago

I’ve always wondered what the RE24 stat was actually measuring.

So wRAA, an out that advances a runner from 1st to 2nd is a -0.31 addition, while to RE24, it’s a -0.20 addition.

To think I estimated Mark Reynolds’ striking out costing the D-backs 6-9 runs more than a more normalized strikeout rate to appease a guy who bashed my writing, fangraphs has it at just 2.7 runs.

lookatthosetwins
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lookatthosetwins
6 years 11 months ago

I liked this article up until this point. “any team that starts him wont’ be a perennial playoff contender.”

He’s a league average player over the course of his career. That counts his horrible 07 as well as his very good 06. Show me one perennial contender that didn’t have one league average player.

matswilander
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matswilander
6 years 11 months ago

I agree generally that the AL Central wasn’t strong, although it was pretty darn good in 06 when the Tigers and Twins made the playoffs. But how can you compare the Twins to any small market NL team? The Nationals?

The Twins still compete in the American League, which is presumptively better than the National League, no matter what NL division you’re talking about. The Twins have dominated interleague play in recent years.

National League < AL Central < AL East

Doctor_teh
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Doctor_teh
6 years 11 months ago

Just wanna say thank you for this article! A friend and I (both Twins fans) have an argument almost daily over Punto. I hate him and argue that his horrible batting (this year and most years) far overtakes his good fielding in terms of improving the teams win expectancy (I’m not good enough with statistics to truly make sure this is accurate or prove it) this more or less makes this argument. So thanks.

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5 years 23 days ago

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