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40 in 40: Boston Red Sox Player Profiles: Nick Punto

Nick Punto was signed by the Red Sox minutes after the team traded uber-utility player Jed “Jedi” Lowrie to the Houston Astros at the beginning of the team’s major bullpen overhaul. The reason for this signing is obvious: power. Nick Punto is at the beginning of a histocially awesome surge in his power hitting. What’s that? You think I am nuts? Well, I will have you know that the utlity infielder is coming off of season where he nearly doubled, DOUBLED, his ISO. He hit half as many home runs in 166 plate appearances last year as he did in 728 plate appearance in the two previous seasons. Hell, it was probably Nick Punto’s urine sample thatMLBtested in place of Braun’s. The man is a monster.

Ok. That’s enough joking around. Besides being one of baseball’s least powerful hitters, Nick Punto is a very solid all-around baseball player. Sure he can almost double hisISOand still be at just .143. And yes, his highest single season home run total is just four. However, by just looking at that one truly sub-par aspect of Punto’s game, it can become easy to miss the fact that he does many things quite well. Anyway, with David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez on the team, it will probably be alright if back up infielder Nick Punto can’t put the ball in the seats too often.

Hitting

What Nick Punto can do is get on base. His career walk rate of 10.2% is very good. For reference, that is almost exactly how often Adrian Gonzalez walked last year. As with A-Gon, pitchers are clearly afraid to attack the zone when Punto steps in. Punto combines his excellent eye (he swings at just 23% of pitches out of the zone) with a good contact rate (88.1% career) and an extremely low swinging strike rate (4.7% career).Boston fans should recognize that skill set as it is very close to the one Marco Scutaro brought to the table these past two seasons. In fact, if Punto were to approach average level power, his slightly superior eye at the plate would make him a near perfect replacement for Scutaro.

The switch hitting, Punto is basically the same from both sides with a career 77 wRC+ from the right side and a career 75 wRC+ from the left. Hitting left handed Punto goes the other with the ball to an extreme,  while from the right side he uses the whole field more, though still featuring an opposite field hitting style, especially on ground balls. Ground balls are going to be in abundance on the days when Punto plays. The 34 veteran hits the ball on the ground a ton. 48.2% of his batted balls have been earthbound, which is the single biggest factor keeping him from ranking up extra base hits. With less than 3% of his fly balls leaving the yard, it is hard to fault Punto for not trying to hit more ball in the air.

While some of the other positions in flux for the Red Sox make prefect oppertunties for platooning, a Nick Punto/ Mike Aviles platoon at short doesn’t offer any advantage on offense. Punto strikes out more hitting left-handed while walking close to the same amount, making him a poor fit for the major role in such an arrangement. Aviles is the overall better hitter and should be the everyday short stop. Punto is well suited for a utility role and as a defensive replacement for Kevin Youkilis and Aviles should Bobby Valentine feel he needs that type of insurance. His bat, while significantly weakened by his lack of power is enough to play well in a limited role. He will not make easy outs when he does play and he will significantly up the defensive capabilities of the infield.

Defense

Nick Punto has not put together a ten year major league career with a .078 ISO  by being a lead footed first basemen. The 5-9 infielder is a glove first player and he shines by both advanced metrics and casual observation. By UZR he is a top tier fielder at SS and 3B and well above average at 2B as well. By Total Zone he is among the best defenders in the game at 3B and above average at 2B. His TZ score is actually negative at SS, which is extremely odd, though it is probably fair to say it is his weakest position of the three, despite UZR’s claims otherwise. His reputation is excellent every where. The majority of his career has been played for the Minnesota Twins, a team known for highly valuing defense, so the more traditional school of defensive thought seems to like what he can do with his glove at least as much as the metrics and probably even more.

While most of the talk this off-season has centered around his playing time at short stop, third base is the position where he will likely have the most impact. Kevin Youkilis has struggled with injuries the past two seasons and the move to third base last year to accommodate Adrian Gonzalez has not helped. Youk would be more valuable and more likely to stay on the field if he was still playing first base, but that is certainly not going to work for the team’s offense. Instead, Youk will probably get a good deal of rest days and time at DH with Punto taking over the hot corner in these situations. The loss on offense will be at least slightly tempered by Punto’s incredible fielding at a premium position. UZR expects Punto to save approximately 18 runs a year as an everyday third baseman. With ground ball heavy pitchers like Daniel Bard, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester in the rotation, those extra plays will go a long way in preventing runs.

Nick Punto gets on base, fields three positions extremely well, runs pretty good and makes a lot of contact. That is a pretty good skill set for a utility guy. Don’t expect him him to send the ball bouncing onto Lansdowne St. If chicks really dig the long ball, they aren’t going to line up for Nick Punto. Anemic hitting aside, there is plenty to like about Punto’s game. You bet that more than one Red Sox pitcher will take a shine to the new infielder, where ever he is playing behind them.