Immediate reaction to the Nick Punto signing was mixed and there was plenty of comments on his perception as “gritty”, “a winner” or soon to be “dirt dog”. That is all good for laughs, but unlike some players with those qualities and a career wOBA of .296 you would assume Punto would be a terrible signing. I have to disagree and although his health is often a question mark he should make a solid utility infielder.
In his career Punto has averaged 110 games played each season since 2005, but has seen the field less and less each season. 2011 was his worst yet with only 63 games played due to a hernia injury. All of his missed time though has not had a large impact on his value yet. That value has largely come from plus defense in nearly 300 games at each of the infield positions except first base. His flexibility even for such a poor hitter will help the team with building the roster.
His defense does have some questions, but depending on what measuring system you look at it swings from poor to very good. According to UZR his defense at third base and short stop saves more than 18 runs per 150 games. At second base his defense is worth 6.9 runs per 150 games. Those are great numbers and would really be a step up over Jed Lowrie. The question comes though when we look at total zone which grades him as a career negative fielder at short stop, but a very good third baseman and solid second baseman.
*For what it is worth the fangraphs fan scouting report had him as a very good defender in 2010.
I’m going to assume the Red Sox grade has Punto closer to the UZR value defensively (especially at SS) and we can use fWAR to look at his value to the team. Even if healthy all year Punto will be a utility fielder and although some writers have lost their mind and think adding Punto along with Mike Aviles might be the end of Kevin Youkilis in Boston. It’s much more likely the Red Sox find a way to move Aviles this offseason as his defense has graded very poorly and he has three arbitration years left making him a good trade candidate.
With his health problems and below replacement level hitting you would have to assume Punto has been replacement level at best, but in 887 games played he has totalled 12.8 fWAR. That is not amazing, but averages out to 2.08 fWAR for every 150 games played. When you then break it down to what he has done since 2008 in limited time he has averaged 3.04 fWAR for every 150 games played. Making him an average to above average player when he is on the field.
When he plays Punto has supplied above average play at three infield positions over the past four seasons. The Red Sox have no intention of Punto seeing 150 games in 2012 or 2013, but with Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Marco Scutaro all having dealt with injuries at important times the past two years he makes a very significant add at a measly cost of $3.5 million for the next two seasons.
The Red Sox are looking for budget deals that can help the team this year to stay under the luxury tax. The addition of Punto reminded me of the addition of Pokey Reese in 2004 as someone who added a fair amount of value defensively and also became a fan favorite for hustle, “grit” and energy. The hope here is that Punto can maintain at least the .296 wOBA he has unlike Reese who flailed to a .256 wOBA in Boston.