Last night, Nick Punto killed the last shot the Dodgers had at rallying back for a Game 4 win when he got caught leaning and was picked off at second base the seventh inning. It was precisely the kind of blunder that a veteran player like Punto is supposed to be immune to, and so the weight of his mistake gets unfairly magnified.
Here's Fox Sports' Jon Morosi writing incredulously about Punto's gaffe:
Punto’s mastery of baseball fundamentals is the reason he’s played nearly 1,100 games in the major leagues. He became an everyday player with the Minnesota Twins because manager Ron Gardenhire adored his defense and baserunning. Then Punto earned Tony La Russa’s trust and became a World Series champion with the Cardinals in 2011.
Punto never has hit for much power or an especially high average. But he always does the small things correctly, which is why to see him picked off second base — when he wasn’t the tying run, when there was no reason for him to steal — was way more shocking than David Ortiz’s game-tying grand slam against the Tigers at Fenway Park on Sunday.
All that lauding of Punto's game—he does the little things right, he's a master of fundamentals—is completely hollow. It's just crap thrown at a wall in an attempt to explain how a little guy who can't hit keeps finding playing time. More shocking than David Ortiz’s grand slam? Get out of here with that. It wasn't shocking at all, because Nick Punto is just a baseball player who sometimes makes dumb baseball plays. In fact, he's got a knack for making these kind of plays.
It was four years ago when Punto, then an everyday player with the Minnesota Twins, found himself in a very similar situation. The Twins were just a few outs from being swept out of the ALDS by the Yankees when Punto led off the eighth inning of a one-run game with a double. The next batter hit a ball up the middle and Punto, thinking the ball had skipped into the outfield, rounded third and headed for home, ignoring his third base coach's pleas to stop on the way. Derek Jeter, who had fielded the ball behind second base, threw home and Punto was caught trying to dive back to third. It was a crushing moment, and Punto's comments after the game were heartbreaking:
I wanted to dig a hole, crawl inside it and die. It was really embarrassing. I knew he didn’t hit the ball real hard. I thought it was getting through. The crowd was going crazy. I had my head down. I picked up Scotty late. It was all on me. A terrible play, and a key play in the game.
And now, four years later, Punto had to face the same crushing loneliness that comes with killing a rally on the base paths:
I was a little too aggressive. It was a big play in the game. It was a lonely place to be. It was a lonely jog back to the dugout.
Morosi's conception of Punto becomes even more patronizing when you consider that Punto is in fact a solid player, independent of his perceived ability to play fundamentally sound baseball. He's averaged 3.2 bWAR per 650 PAs over his career, and has seasons of 3.7, 2.4, 2.2 (this year), 1.7, and 1.5. Punto doesn't need to be praised for doing things that don't show up on a stat sheet, because he does plenty of positive things that do show up. To ignore that fact and turn him into someone whose primary value is an ability to "do the little things" is unfair both in the context of his career and what happened last night.
Nick Punto is just a ballplayer who made a terrible play last night, and that's hard enough. Let's allow him to own his mistake without turning him into a traitor to his scrappy, fundamentally sound archetype. It will make things easier for everyone.