Prior to bleating out my Nick Punto Day post a week ago, I descended into his batted ball split numbers located at fangraphs.com to see if the contains the secret to the ebb and flow of his offensive output. In his five seasons in a Twins uniform he’s gone from slightly below average hitter to a super below average hitter and back again. A team that has numerous offensive contributors in the lineup can withstand a slightly below average supplier who can compensate for his offensive shortcomings on defense. When those numbers decline into the red zone of a super below average hitter no amount of glove love can makeup for the lack of production.
As a switch-hitter, Punto has demonstrated very little to indicate that he is more or less proficient from one side of the plate or the other. He’s inept at both. Aside from having a better sample-size from the left-handed batter’s box – an additional 1,000 plate appearances – he had a very balanced equilibrium:
|Punto's Splits||Career PA||Slashes||OPS|
|vs RHP as LHB||1,739||.244/.324/.323||.647|
|vs LHP as RHB||788||.256/.318/.326||.644|
With the reality of Punto starting the season as a regular at third base, we need to try to identify if he is capable of rebounding or if we will witness more abysmal production.
Turning our attention to the past four seasons of his hit distribution, we can see some trends emerge that separate his better years from his putrid years. I highlighted Punto’s better year of 2006 and 2008 in italics and marked the columns that standout to me in red:
Let’s focus in on his left-handed splits first as this was where he had the majority of his at-bats. In 2009 and 2007, otherwise known as The Punto-esque Years, Punto struggled when turning on pitches from the left-handed batter’s box. In 2007, he pulled 33.3 percent of his balls in play but hit an extremely high amount of groundballs (81%). Because he held a below average BABIP on grounders that year, we need to assume that a majority of those wormburners were scooped up by infielders thus the .214 batting average. This past season Punto elevated the ball a tad more (61% GB), but had an even lower BABIP in ’09 on groundballs (.204 versus .230 in ’07) so the assumption is that a greater total of those batted balls were converted to outs thus the .182 batting average when pulling the ball. In comparison to his better years where he hit above .300 while turning on the ball, Punto had above average line drives rates resulting in a few more hits.
One thing that should jump out at you about the progression of his right-handed splits is how he went from a balanced spray-type hitter with up-the-middle tendencies to an extreme opposite field hitter. After successive years of pulling over 20 percent of his pitches, he yanked fewer than 5 percent. There are two logical conclusions that I can draw, (1) he was intentionally slashing pitches the opposite way because he was putting better wood on the ball and getting better results or (2) slowing down physically. Likewise, in his better seasons, Punto drove more line drives back up the middle whereas in his down years, his total amount through the box and on a line both dropped considerable.
There are tons of moving parts to consider when evaluating Nick Punto and projecting his future performance based on his batted ball track record. Overall, he is a groundball hitter that had disproportionately bad and good batted ball averages in the past four years. Maintaining a decent line drive rate and above average walk rate to boot, you would expect his suppressed groundball BABIP to revert back to average (.240) and thus a markedly improved season this coming year. From the left side of the dish, his numbers to center and to left field are consistent. The only discrepancy has been his ability to pull effectively. Because this was contingent on groundballs pushing into the outfield, I suspect that he will post better numbers from that side of the plate as his groundball BABIP equalizes. On the other hand, looking at the direction of some of his hit distributions, I’m inclined to believe that something else is amiss, particularly from the right-side of the plate (maybe injury or age-related decline). This is a minor concern considering that the presence of Brendan Harris on the roster gives Ron Gardenhire a good option to replace Punto against left-handed pitchers.