The Nick Punto Effect

puntoThis may seem strange, but if you stick with me, I think I’ve got a compelling point: Having Nick Punto on your baseball team helps make you a winner.

For those who are not baseball fans, you probably don’t know Nick Punto. You probably don’t know who he has played for during his now fifteen-year long professional baseball career. So here are the basics: Nick Punto is a career .250 hitter. This isn’t great, but it isn’t bad, either. In fact, in just about every season he has played at the major league level, he has hit within 30 points either side of that .250 mark. He doesn’t hit for power, has never stolen more than 17 bases during a major league season, doesn’t get many RBIs, probably strikes out more than a .250 hitter should, and doesn’t walk as much as he should, either. And, to top it off, he has the nasty habit of sliding head-first into first base when running out a bunt. But he’s a utility infielder who, according to the official stats at mlb.com, has a career .989 fielding percentage (which means he’s committed an error on a fielding play in only 1.1 percent of the times he has handled the ball), while still playing every position in the field during his major league career except catcher and pitcher.

In short, Nick Punto is good enough to play at the major league level, but he’ll never be considered one of the greats.

He played for the Philadelphia Phillies when he came up to the majors in 2001 and 2002 for the proverbial cup of coffee. Then he got regular playing time in 2003, but was traded in the off season to the Twins in 2004 in exchange for Eric Milton. He quickly became part of that crew at the bottom of the Twins roster referred to by Ozzie Guillen as “piranas” for their tenacity while not appearing to be players teams needed to worry much about. This group is probably best known for scrapping through tough seasons to force the extra game 163 two years in a row, in 2008 and 2009. 2010 was his last season with the Twins. Oddly enough, that was also the last season the Twins finished above .500.

But the Twins decided not to resign him for $5 million a year for 2011 after he had made $8.5 million for the two years prior. So he moved on to St. Louis, signed for $700,000 to be a utility infielder. The Cardinals went on to the World series that year.

He signed with Boston for 2012, and was traded midway through the season to the Dodgers, where, this season, they’re vying for the National League Pennant.

Okay, sure. You could make the point that it isn’t because of Nick Punto that the Twins have failed to have the success they had when he was here. And that the Cardinals and Dodgers don’t owe their successes of 2011 or this season to Punto, but there is no denying this: he is that rare gem in baseball that many people overlook.

He isn’t flashy, but he’s a consistent player both at the plate and in the field, regardless of where you put him. Ask most managers, and they’ll tell you that if they could have a player who you know will give you a 1-for-4 performance at the plate every night and almost never make an error in any position you play them in the field, they’ll take that player every time, just because it’s one less hole in the lineup to worry about. And guys like Punto help make the rest of the team work harder because he has to work so hard to produce what he does, and he wants to be in the lineup every single day.

I’ve said for a very long time that it was a huge mistake for the Twins to let him go, though for the $5 million contract option that was coming due that season, it was the right business decision, but that’s what renegotiation is for, right? But as you look at the Twins roster for these past couple of years, you see a glaring omission: we have no utility players, no really consistent hitters who can pick up the bottom end of the lineup.

So as the Twins begin rebuilding to make a better team for the next few years, that’s what we need: another Nick Punto. Or hell, I’ll even take the original. He’s worth a couple million a year for what he can do.

See you tomorrow.