Following the infamous Game Three baserunning error, Nick Punto may be one of the most hated men in Minnesota. He ignored the (possibly late) stop signal from third-base coach Scott Ullger in favor of the roaring crowd. Punto probably ended up costing the Twins a run in that fateful Game Three, which ended up being the last of 2009, and the last in Metrodome history.
But that one mistake cannot replace a surprisingly solid season from the veteran utility infielder.
The following is a statement that may shock you, so please be warned: Punto leads the team in pitches taken per plate appearance with 4.2. Yes, more than Denard Span. Yes, more than even Joe Mauer. 13.9 percent of Punto's 440 plate appearances this past season resulted in walks. That percentage is higher than Mauer's 12.5 percent, and, again, leads the team.
Both his 4.2 pitches per plate appearance and 13.9 walk percentage are well above the league average.
While Punto swings at more first pitches than Mauer does, Punto swings at fewer pitches outside of the zone than his MVP-caliber teammate. (This could be accounted for by Mauer's sheer ability to hit poor pitches better than Punto, but it is still an interesting stat.) It seems ridiculous, but one could legitimately argue that Punto is the most patient hitter in Minnesota.
Putting aside the fateful miscue in Game Three, Punto remains one of the most effective base-runners in the league. In Baseball Prospectus' Eqivalent Baserunning Runs (EqBRR), Punto is ranked as the fourteenth best base-runner in the major leagues, and by far the best on the Twins. EqBRR takes into account virtually all aspects of baserunning, including actual stolen bases, advancement on fly balls, advancement on ground balls, and other such elements.
Punto is obviously a light hitter, and that is what alienates him to many fans, but he has his value. While he won't be leading any team in doubles or home runs, Punto is an above-average No. 9 hitter. His Wins Above Replacement this year was 1.2, and he has averaged just under 1.5 per full season. 1.5 WAR is certainly acceptable for the last hitter in your batting lineup.
Finally, on a point that could probably stand alone, Punto's fielding makes him entirely worth a full-time position in the lineup. His combined UZR this year was 5.1—not Franklin Gutierrez by any stretch, but essential for the ground-ball pitchers in Minnesota's rotation.
Perhaps the most compelling argument on Punto's worthiness to be a regular in the 2010 Minnesota infield, though, is the lack of other options. Brendan Harris is up for arbitration, Alexi Casilla is out of options, and Orlando Cabrera's contract is up. Punto's salary is the only one guaranteed, so if you put him on the bench or attempt to trade him you will be forced to fill second base, third base, and shortstop this winter.
Hardly a position you would want the Twins in, right?
Whichever middle infield position the Twins choose to address this winter—and I'll dive deeper into that as the season wears on—Nick Punto needs to start at one of them.
Originally published by me at TwinsTarget.com