Nick Punto And Miguel Sano: Getting The Good To Outweigh The Bad
Image courtesy of Gary A. Vasquez, USA TodayThe fact that his inclusion in the lineup on a game in and game out basis was as controversial as it was is a great testament to the fact that he was 1) versatile 2) a strong defender and 3) a virtual waste of a plate appearance. For his career, he was about 23 percent worse than the average major league hitter and that includes his inexplicable, galling 2011 when he was 25 percent above average for the Cardinals after having been 32 percent below average for the 2010 Twins. Perhaps no season serves as a better example of the Punto paradox than 2007, when he was the worst qualified hitter in baseball, but still managed to eke out a positive WAR thanks to his defense and adequate base running.
Punto’s glove was too good to leave on the bench, the Twins believed, but putting him in the lineup meant sacrificing elsewhere, which ought to sound very similar to the situation the team is facing this year with Miguel Sano.
No one is unclear why the Twins want Sano’s bat in the lineup, not after what he showed in his 335 PAs last year. By wRC+, Sano was one of the 10 best hitters in baseball (min 300 PAs) last season, and if that doesn’t buy someone a guaranteed spot in the order, absolutely nothing will. But the presence of Joe Mauer and Trevor Plouffe, and the acquisition of Byung-Ho Park means that Sano will now be judged by both his offense and his performance in the outfield.
The Twins may have hoped Sano would be further along in his development as an outfielder by this point, but there was no way he was going to be anything other than a work in progress for most of 2016. His ill-conceived dive on Tuesday night that cost the Twins a run showed that his instincts are still coming along, but he’s already gotten on base multiple times in one game twice in the three games so far this season, so the yin and yang of 2016 Miguel Sano is already on full display.
Much as we wondered how bad Punto’s offense could be before Ron Gardenhire would stop penciling him in the lineup, the question that will almost certainly face Paul Molitor at points his season is how bad can Sano be in the outfield while still providing enough of a reason to keep him in the lineup.
In 2009, Adam Dunn turned in the worst defensive season by any outfielder since 2000. He was 44 runs below replacement defensively that year, though he split time between the outfield corners and first base, where he was also execrable. He hit 38 home runs, walked in over 17 percent of his plate appearances, and was 42 percent better than league average on offense to compensate for being an unhidable butcher in the field, and managed to produce a 1.1 WAR that season. Clearly the Nationals were hoping for an overall better result from Dunn in his first year with the team, but it’s hard to argue that they got anything other than what they should have expected.
If Sano matches Dunn, he’ll still be an offensive star, but he’ll give the Twins less overall value in 162 games than he did 80 last year. Is that acceptable? It’s certainly not desirable, but will the cumulative effect of having Park, Mauer, and Plouffe in the order along with Sano produce the surplus value the Twins want? Possible, but still suboptimal.
There is a pretty clear model for the player the Twins would like Sano to be as long as he’s learning the outfield: Manny Ramirez.
Ramirez wasn’t just bad when he was learning his position, he was hilariously terrible in the field for most of his career, and yet, since 2000, Ramirez is one of only two players to have a season where he was worth -25 runs or worse defensively and still post a WAR of 2.9 or higher. He did four times (Hideki Matsui was the only other to do it, and he did it just once) between 2000 and when his career functionally ended in 2009.
Ramirez’s 2005 season was the sixth worst defensive player-season of the new millennium at -32.6 runs below replacement, but he hit 45 home runs, was 52 percent above league average offensively, and helped anchor a Red Sox offense that scored an MLB-best 910 runs. 2.9 WAR certainly wasn’t his high water mark, but it was good enough to help the Sox secure a playoff spot. Unlike Dunn -- whose offensive profile more closely matches Sano’s than Ramirez’s does -- Ramirez wasn’t a strictly three true outcomes threat that season, as he hit .292/.388/.594 to help drive up his overall value.
If Sano ends up being the next Manny Ramirez, the Twins should be elated even with the accompanying defensive frailties, but betting on that career arc is awfully optimistic. As mentioned above, Sano’s skill set is similar to Dunn’s: Hit for great power, walk a lot based on the fear you instill in opposing pitchers, and strike out an impressively high number of times, which means that in order to produce the type of value the Twins need Sano to produce to be competitive this year -- and, in truth, in the future as well -- he’ll either need to keep his defensive value above -20 runs below replacement or add a high batting average to his offensive arsenal.
It wouldn’t surprise me a bit for this to be the worst season of Sano’s career. He ought to get better and better in the outfield as he gets a feel for different parks and as his instincts kick in, which means that even if his offense stagnates (if you can call repeated seasons at 40 percent above average stagnation) his overall value will continue to rise. Living between 10 and 20 runs below replacement would position him in the Ryan Braun or Giancarlo Stanton realm of being far better on offense than on defense, but valuable enough in total to make a serious MVP case in years of exemplary offensive performance.
- Parker Hageman, ScrapTheNickname, d-mac and 1 other like this