Kevin Youkilis spent nine years with the Boston Red Sox. For a few seasons he was one of the best hitters in baseball, but always he was a fan favorite. He was loved for his gritty style of play, his intensity, his bizarre stance, and because he was so damn good. So when Youk was traded mid-game during the 2012 season, it was a big deal. Later, Youkilis remembered what that moment was like:
My final game in Fenway Park was amazing. The emotions from the first at-bat and a standing ovation to the moment Nick Punto, one of my closest baseball friends, came out to run for me is indescribable. Red Sox fans that day gave me the most amazing sendoff a player could ever ask for because it was not scripted. No speeches or pregame ceremonies were needed. It was just the beauty of a fan base showing theirappreciation and I wish I could’ve shown them more love, but the game had to go on.
Fenway Park, a departing icon, standing ovations, emotions, history, reverence, and, somewhere somehow, Nick Punto.
Punto announced his retirement from baseball on Wednesday, making official what was suspected after he sat out the 2015 season. Because players don’t sit out seasons when they have decent offers on hand, and teams don’t give good offers to players in their late-30s who just sat out a season. But still, Punto is hanging them up, and as such, it’s time to offer a retrospective of what Nick Punto meant to the Boston Red Sox. Here. Let me sum up Nick Punto’s time with the Red Sox as best I can in a single word.
That was the essence of Nick Punto’s contribution to the Red Sox. During his 65 games with Boston, Punto came to bat 148 times. With those chances, Punto amassed a slash line of .200/.301/.272. And yes, before you ask, that slugging percentage really is lower than the on-base percentage. His entire contribution was worth -0.2 WARP. In other words, he actually cost the Red Sox a fifth of a win. As for highlights, well… he had one home run. It came on a 2-0 count in the ninth inning of a game the Red Sox were leading 6-4. Even his high points almost literally didn’t matter. He was utterly expendable, replaceable, inconsequential.
That’s not to say Punto had an inconsequential career. On the contrary, he played in the majors for almost a decade and a half! Sure he was only worth a total of 5.2 WARP during that time, but a decade-plus in the majors in and of itself, regardless of any measurements or statements of quality, is impressive. So why did he last so long if he wasn’t very good? There are two reasons. The first is his versatility. Punto was the guy you wanted on your team because he could play all over the diamond. During those paltry 65 games with the Red Sox, Punto played every single infield position. He even played shortstop (all of 44 innings!). (Yikes!) He was short, squat, and powerless, but you could put him just about anywhere in the infield and your team wouldn’t automatically lose the game, and that had value that maybe wasn’t captured in his WARP total. That was the first reason then-GM Ben Cherington gave Punto a two-year contract.
The second reason Cherington signed Nick Punto was that he was a great teammate. If you were trying to build a good clubhouse, Punto was a positive step towards that goal. So it was all the more ironic when he was traded to, among many other reasons, improve Boston’s clubhouse chemistry. The 2012 Red Sox were managed by Bobby Valentine. Also, there were clubhouse problems. Those two things may have been related! Come July, the team was struggling and Valentine was awful and some of the players weren’t happy and attempted to go over Valentine’s head to fix the situation. This didn’t work, unless the goal was to make everything worse. If so, then it was a resounding success! But otherwise, nope.
If you were trying to build a good clubhouse, Punto was a positive step towards that goal. So it was all the more ironic when he was traded to, among many other reasons, improve Boston’s clubhouse chemistry.
We go round and round for another month or so with the team not improving on the field or in the clubhouse, and it became clear that something had to be done. What was done was huge. Then-new GM Ben Cherington took a box of dynamite to the roster. It was like a plan conceived by Wile E. Coyote, except this one worked. The end result was one of the biggest trades in team history. Gone were franchise cornerstones Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett to the LA Dodgers. In return, the Dodgers sent the Red Sox young pitchers Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa. But most importantly they agreed to pay every penny of the the almost $270 million owed to those three players. $270 million!! And LA took it all! Oh my gosh!
Oh, and they took Nick Punto too.
It was an amazing trade. It completely reset the Red Sox roster, giving the team flexibility they hadn’t dreamed was possible. It allowed them to supplement the roster that coming off-season with a whole bunch of upside plays, nearly every single one of whom was a smashing success, like a David Ortiz World Series at-bat. This led directly to the improbable, cathartic, and just plain fun 2013 World Series win the following season.
All that was amazing, strange, wonderful, but what about Nick Punto? He may have been the strangest, the most bizarre aspect of it. Of Beckett, Crawford, and Gonzalez, all were multi-millionaires on multi-year contracts paying them tens of millions of dollars per season. All were stars, Beckett from the ’07 World Series win with the Red Sox, and before that, the ’03 World Series with the Marlins, both of which wouldn’t have been won without his dominance on the biggest stage. Gonzalez was perhaps the preeminent first baseman in baseball, a player the Red Sox had just traded almost their entire farm system for before bestowing a massive $20+ million-per-season contract on him. He was to be the centerpiece of the Red Sox. Crawford combined superior speed and defense with surprising power. He, along with Gonzalez, was the big, sexy pillar of the new Red Sox.
And Nick Punto who signed for $3 million over two years and was balding and pudgy. He was the coaster hastily shoved under the drink minutes after the fact. He was completely an afterthought.
Ned Colletti [Dodgers GM]: We really want Gonzalez, Ben.
Cherington: You can have him, but like I’ve been telling you for months, you have to take Beckett and Crawford too.
Colletti: You know what? I’ll do it!
Cherington: Great! We’ll have the paperwork drawn up and we’ll notify the commissioner’s office. Talk to you soon [goes to hang up phone]
Colletti: Wait Ben!
Colletti: Throw in Pinto too, wouldya?
Cherington: You mean Punto?
Colletti: Yeah, Punto.
Cherington: Uh… sure?
Colletti: Great! Can’t wait to make this official!
It was the biggest trade the Red Sox ever consummated, both in terms of total dollars and in terms of the 180 degree directional change of the franchise that it not only symbolized but engineered. It led directly to the team’s third World Series championship in a decade, a thought that would have been unimaginable in August of 2012. It featured three All Stars, and a local World Series hero. And what do people call it? The Punto Trade. Because of all the significance dripping from the deal, what sticks out perhaps most of all, is Punto’s inclusion. It’s just so… strange, such an afterthought, so utterly inessential, replaceable, inconsequential. And yet, there he is, on a private jet with Beckett and Gonzalez, a two-time World Series winning ace and perhaps the best first baseman in the league. In a time of great seriousness, here was Nick Punto in this trade, and it was… funny.
— Nick Punto (@Shredderpunto) August 25, 2012
In a way, Nick Punto was the great artist who died young and unknown. Decades later his work is discovered tucked away in a dusty attic somewhere and his genius is recognize and appreciated. Nick Punto meant nothing to the Red Sox while he was in Boston. He was by definition replaceable by any run-of-the-mill Triple-A middle infielder. It was only by leaving that he became important. But by going, he became more than important; he came to symbolize the first chapter of the rebirth of a franchise, and the first step towards a World Series win. He took with him the distrust, animus, and backbiting of the Valentine era, and wiped it away with the efficacy of an industrial strength cleanser.
As a player with the Red Sox Nick Punto is meaningless, that is, except for what his name connotes. But it is that very implication that, as far as Boston is concerned, is the most consequential thing he ever did.
Photo by Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports Images