True Utility: Nick Punto

During his tenure with the Minnesota Twins, Nick Punto has often been the object of scorn around the internet, generally being lumped in with players like Willie Bloomquist as another “speedy” white dude whose alleged “scrappiness” overshadows overall lousiness on the baseball field. The Twins recently decided that they weren’t enamored enough with Punto to pick up his five million dollar option for 2011. With Orlando Hudson looking for bigger deal in 2011 and thus unlikely to return, Minnesota seems to be looking to Alexi Casilla as their 2011 second baseman at the moment. I don’t think Casilla is as good as Punto — whatever small advantage he has with the bat is taken away by a terrible glove — but if the Twins need to trim payroll, not picking up Punto’s option makes sense (although picking up Jason Kubel‘s option is an odd choice…). That’s a lot of money for a part-timer.

But where might Punto fit? He’s clearly a terrible offensive player. His .324 wOBA in 2008 was encouraging, but since then he’s failed to be over .300 in a full season, and sported a Kendallian .280 in 2010. CHONE’s August update estimated his true, context-neutral hitting talent at -15. Of course, that isn’t the whole story with Punto. While never getting a full season of playing time, the last three seasons he has been 2.5 (377 PA), 1.3 (440 PA), and 1.4 WAR (288 PA), respectively. UZR is impressed with his infield defense at 3B, 2B, and SS. So is DRS, and (to a lesser extent) TotalZone. He’s probably an above-average fielder at second and third (where his range makes up for a weak arm), and although he’s not as good at shortstop, he’s probably at least average-ish. He’s likely close to 1.5 WAR player over a full season. $4.5 million (once his $500,000 buyout is accounted for) is still too much for him if he isn’t going to play full-time (although if he were, it wouldn’t be bad). I’m not sure whether the Twins will try to re-sign him for less or not, but if they don’t, he should find a job somewhere.

“Utility player” gets thrown about a fair bit. Sometimes it is used for players who can’t play anywhere well (or can’t hit well enough to play the “easy” positions), guys like Bloomquist or Ross Gload (Gload being the LF/1B version). A better term for such players is simply “replacement level,” I think, since their utility (theoretically, since some teams insist on paying them well) is really in filling the end of the bench while being paid the minimum. Punto, however, has genuine utility. Despite being noodle-batted, he can field well at positions that are difficult to fill; he isn’t simply a guy who is defensively good at first base or left field. Indeed, even if he’s a bit below average at shortstop, that’s valuable, even for a -15 hitter.

That doesn’t mean that every team in the league should be lining up to sign the 33-year-old Punto. Let’s say he’s a 1.5 WAR player. If he plays about half the season, that’s less than one win over replacement. Yes, a win is probably going to be worth between four and five million dollars in 2011, but that’s on average. Teams that aren’t going to contend shouldn’t look at Punto (unless he’s willing to play for the minimum) or players like him; the extra win isn’t worth that much to rebuilding teams. However, a player like Punto does make sense for a contender for whom the value of a marginal win is greater. The Yankees aren’t necessarily a team that should target Punto, but let’s use them as an example. Their third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, has missed substantial numbers of games the last three seasons. Assuming they bring Derek Jeter back, he’ll be 36 to start next season. And Robinson Cano will need a game off every once in a while. The Yankees are trying to contend in the toughest division in baseball, so a player like Punto might makes sense for them. (Again, the Yankees are just an example; one could potentially put win-now teams like the Phillies, Cardinals, or even the Twins on the list.)

Contenders have too much at stake to play a true replacement-level player for an extended period of time if one of their starting infielders go down, so if they can get Nick Punto at, say, two million dollars for 2011, it makes sense. Many teams are going to sign mediocre relievers for more than that. Punto isn’t a great player, but his ability to play good defense at hard-to-fill positions makes him a valuable one in the right situation. That skill, not “scrappiness,” is why Punto, unlike the replacement-level players he is often confused with, has true utility.



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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


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M.Twain
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M.Twain
5 years 8 months ago

Nicely said, Matt. It’s also a good argument for why he doesn’t fit for the Mariners.

The Ancient Mariner
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The Ancient Mariner
5 years 8 months ago

Actually, it isn’t; the M’s need someone like him for a different reason. They have no starting 2B for next year until Ackley is ready, but it would be unwise for them to leave themselves in a position where they have to rush him; they also have a starting SS made of fine porcelain, and no backup. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ackley and Wilson between them give the M’s fewer than 200 starts next season, so the team badly needs somebody who can play both positions at least competently — but given that they can’t afford to block Ackley this season, and are probably at least keeping a weather eye cocked on the development of Nick Franklin at SS, this is not a position where going out and making a big commitment to a long-term starter is likely to be the best use of resources. As such, somebody like Punto — start at 2B until Ackley takes the job, then split time at SS the rest of the way, filling in from time to time wherever else he might be needed — would be a very valuable player for the development of the 2011 Seattle Mariners.

M.Twain
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M.Twain
5 years 8 months ago

The Mariners have far too many holes to worry about “if” a player (Wilson) gets injured. They also have a second baseman in Figgins until Ackley is ready, and two potential third basemen in Tuiasosopo and Mangini. Unless, of course, you believe that one year of UZR is suddenly enough data and you also believe that 3B and 2B are so radically different that a player can be a good defender at one position and not the other, in this case, a speedy player with an average arm.

CMC_Stags
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CMC_Stags
5 years 8 months ago

M.Twain-

On Figgins… he has more than one year at 2B and all the signs point to him being well below average there. On the other hand, all the signs point to him being well above average at 3B. If he’s on the team then playing him at 3B for the full season makes the most sense.

Punto at 2B with Figgins at 3B would be of much more utility to the M’s than Figgins at 2B and Tui/Mangini at 3B. He’d also have more flexibility if there was a trade of or injury to Figgins or Wilson.

M.Twain
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M.Twain
5 years 8 months ago

CMC_Stags,

Figgins has played 2B for about a year and a half over his ML career, but only one year full time. In the half year, spread over several years, he was about average.

If you look at Orlando Hudson’s career, you can find 1.5 year spans of UZR data that says he’s very good or very bad or average. But don’t take my word for it – Dave Cameron has written about needing about 3 years of UZR data and that there is not a big difference between the two positions for players that play both. Even Nick Punto, who has ~2000 innings at each 2B, 3B, and SS, appears to be much better at 3B and SS than he is a 2B. Is there any logical reason why that would be the case?

Matt Defalco
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Matt Defalco
5 years 8 months ago

Why are the main topics of my second year literature class commenting on Fangraphs?

Naliamegod
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Naliamegod
5 years 8 months ago

Tui and Mangini really aren’t options for starting at the MLB level at this point and you don’t want them to revert to part-time play when Ackley is ready. And Wilson is an “if,” he is a definite. The team badly needs some form of a SS to play their semi-regulary.

Kurt Vonnegut
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Kurt Vonnegut
5 years 8 months ago

Re: Matt Defalco

No idea.

Nick
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Nick
5 years 8 months ago

Shouldn’t it say “when” Wilson gets hurt, not “if?”

Luke in MN
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Luke in MN
5 years 8 months ago

“CHONE’s August update estimated his true, context-neutral hitting talent at -15.” Minus 15 what?

Also, isn’t it a little ironic that you use WAR to criticize the concept of a “utility” player, when the utility part of “utility player” is something that WAR doesn’t measure at all? Obviously, other things being equal, a player who can play mulitple positions is more valuable than a player who can only play one; a fact that is completely lost on WAR. Depending on your roster construction, the ability to play multiple positions can give a manager considerable leeway to use his other talent to maximum effect.

adam
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5 years 8 months ago

Well said, Matt.

The frustration over Punto in MN was always over Gardy finding a way to get him 500+ PAs on a season, or hitting him second in front of Joe freaking Mauer because he filled his lineup card out by position (a managerial flaw he’s been slowly getting better about).

On the other hand, looking back, Gardy didn’t have anyone else to take those PAs away from Punto. Casilla has been mostly a bust. Cuddyer’s stone glove doesn’t belong anywhere in the infield. Tolbert is Punto Jr. The Twins’ minor league infield cupboard has been so bare for so long that there really weren’t any other options.

But yeah, Punto’s a fine player in the right role. $5m is way too much for him, absolutely. On a $2m or so one-year deal, though, he could totally fill a need for a number of clubs. Just not the Twins, please, since we have far more pressing needs in the bullpen that $2m would go a long way towards.

Mr Punch
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Mr Punch
5 years 8 months ago

To simplify a bit: the value of a utility player above replacement depends on his ability to play SS, together with any extra offensive value as a platoon player/PH. Otherwise he really is a replacement AAAA guy. Punto can’t hit but he’s just good enough at SS to make the grade.

Luke in MN
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Luke in MN
5 years 8 months ago

No it’s more than that. Say you have:

Good utility player at 2b
Good backup 2b
Good 3b
Bad backup 3b

If your good 3nd baseman goes down (or is pinch-hit for, whatever), your utility player allows you to use your good backup player (2b) instead of your bad one. His value becomes the difference between the good and bad backup players.

JK
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JK
5 years 8 months ago

I’m not sure why people are down on Kubel. The same CHONE projections mentioned in the article project him as a 2 WAR DH. Seems reasonable for 5M.

Steve
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Steve
5 years 8 months ago

they are down on him b/c the Twins might want to bring back a better DH. Jim Thome. if they sign Thome, what happens to Kubel?

Barkey Walker
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Barkey Walker
5 years 8 months ago

Because the twins have 5 to 15 million this offseason to fill the space left by a departing Pavano, the Thome, Kubel, 2B, and the majority of the bull pen. Of all those spots, DH is least urgent and Kubel was dominated by Thome as a DH. If you have some AAAA player at DH, that’s a lot better than a AAAA setup pitcher.

Steve
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Steve
5 years 8 months ago

If you have some AAAA player at DH, that’s a lot better than a AAAA setup pitcher.

Is this true? I kindof doubt it. I would think the impact of punting 500 ABs would be larger than punting 65 relief innings.

Fred
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Fred
5 years 8 months ago

Gold Glove winning Derek Jeter* Punto may be whiter but he is far less grindy

Felonius_Monk
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Felonius_Monk
5 years 6 months ago

Surely that’s a contradiction in terms???

Josh
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Josh
5 years 8 months ago

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Casilla has “a terrible glove.” Sure the defensive stats don’t love him, but I think the sample size is small enough that we should be wary about drawing strong conclusions from that. I suspect that he’s not as bad as UZR suggests. He’s definitely capable of flashing some leather as this video shows:

http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=6308351

Hermie13
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Hermie13
5 years 8 months ago

Bill Hall is still my fav choice….but I think Punto would be a great fit for the Indians if the price is right ($2M tops).

Tribe’s infield defense was horrific this past year….especially at 3B. Tribe does have top prospect Chisenhall at 3B but he still hasn’t played at AAA yet and may take the full year to be ML ready. Jayson Nix would be the starting 3B if the season started today for Cleveland……he showed he’s still got some power (back-to-back 10 HR seasons in limited play)….but his defense at 3B was pretty bad.

Tribe has Carmona and Masterson, 2 of the best groundball inducing starting pitchers in baseball……Masterson’s FIP/xFIP put him as one of the top 20-25 SPs in the AL this year. We must get him some defensive help. Punto can do that at 3B til the young guys are ready to step up.

And not like the Tribe has great utility infield options. Nix would be good….but he’s starting now. Valbuena? Hit under .200….and doesn’t have much 3B experience (and bad at SS). Goedert? Great year offensively at AAA…but an absolute butcher at 3B and played a lot of 1B in winterball. Josh Rodriguez is a nice middle infielder at AAA…but 3B hasn’t been a big part of his deal…and he’s not good defnsively either.

Hall gives you more as his bat is better…..but Punto will be cheaper and isn’t a bad vet to have around (Jayson Nix is the Tribe’s oldest infielder right now).

Felonius_Monk
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Felonius_Monk
5 years 6 months ago

Hall signed for the Astros about a month ago.

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