*WTF is Nick Punto Day, you ask? Find out here.
While working on my analysis of the offense, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Nick Punto has actually been worth more than the $4.5 million he's getting paid this year. I was going to write a post about that, but Fangraphs' Jack Moore beat me to it. Moore wrote a pretty good assessment of Punto and his skills, although I think it would have been helpful to put his 2009 performance into perspective by comparing him to other position players. Admittedly, that is a difficult thing to do, since Punto rarely has a fixed position in the infield, but he spent most of his time at second base this year, so perhaps it would be best to just compare him to other American League second-basemen (I'll stick with the AL, since I don't really want to make a table comparing 100+ position players). And so here they are, ranked according to wins above replacement (minimum 170 plate appearances):
|Dustin Pedroia||Red Sox||.360||10.2||5.2|
|Aaorn Hill||Blue Jays||.357||-1.5||4.3|
|Jayson Nix||White Sox||.319||4.5||1.1|
|Chris Getz||White Sox||.312||-5.8||0.2|
Punto was the 15th most-valuable second baseman in the league this year, and that's mostly because of his defense. Punto's .295 wOBA is second only to Yuniesky Betancourt's .271 as the worst of all qualified hitters in the league. However, I would argue that his versatility (Punto has played three different positions this season and is an above-average defender at each one) makes him more valuable to his team in general than other slightly above-average second-basemen such as Jose Lopez and Adam Kennedy, and probably even more valuable than the all-hit, no-glove Alberto Callaspo. He certainly isn't as valuable as someone like Maicer Izturis, who is above-average both offensively and defensively (as well as fairly versatile himself), but having him as a starter isn't exactly costing the team wins, either. Actually, the front office could probably just pick which position between second and short is most in need of an upgrade and have Punto start the other.
I think Punto is a good example of how a player might be overrated and yet somehow under-valued at the same time. People tend to love Punto because he's "scrappy" and "gritty" and he "plays the game the right way", often pointing to one or two brilliant defensive plays as evidence that he is one of the best defenders in the league. Except his defense, while solid, isn't quite that good, and is in fact just barely good enough to make up for his pathetic offense. And really, if it weren't for his versatility, Punto would be about as valuable to the Twins as Matt Tolbert.
Haters, on the other hand, point to his numerous baserunning gaffes, occasional defensive lapses, and paltry .322 on-base percentage as proof that Little Nicky has no place on any major-league roster anywhere. But his skills, limited as they may be, are still pretty valuable nonetheless. It isn't easy to find players that can play one position adequately, let alone three. He might not be one of the best hitters in the league, but Punto does take a lot of pitches (4.2 per plate appearance), and subsequently he tends to draw a lot of walks without striking out a whole lot. It's enough to make him worth $5.5 million this year, and his 2-year, $8.5 million contract, while hardly a bargain, looks to be at least market value.