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The Power Of The Powerless: Ryan Sweeney And Nick Punto

This off-season, the Boston Red Sox acquired two players with long tracks records of weak power at the plate. Utility infielder Nick Punto and right fielder Ryan Sweeney both have career ISO’s under .100 and neither has ever hit more than 6 home runs in a season (Sweeney’s high water mark). While it is certainly not unusual for a utility infielder or a fourth outfielder to lack pop, both Punto and Sweeney are expected to see far more playing time than standard back ups. In fact, Sweeney, being the left-handed half of a right-field platoon plan, may be close to being an everyday player. Punto will see time at shortstop and help to spell Kevin Youkilis at third base, making him far more than an emergency option.

One major reason the Red Sox are willing to play both these players on a regular basis is fairly obvious. Both Sweeney and Punto are excellent defensive players. Sweeney has the speed and instincts to play center and, in right, his center fielder’s glove is a great advantage for a team that plays in Fenway Park, with its deep and wide right field. Punto is as good as it gets at third base and above average at short and second as well, making him a prefect fit for the Red Sox infield needs. Adding their gloves will help the pitching staff succeed even when the strikeouts are not there.

What interests me about both of these players, and the Red Sox decision to bring them in this season, is not their plus glove work, but rather something that they both have in common when they step to the plate. Both players get on base quite well in spite of being among the least dangerous hitters in the game when it comes to power.

Ryan Sweeney has a career .342 OBP. During his tenure, the average OBP has been .331. Nick Punto is a little behind Sweeney, with a career OBP of .325, just a hair below average. Both players exercise excellent discipline at the plate; Sweeney has a walk rate of 8.3% and Punto is even better with a 10.2% rate. Last season, Sweeney saw an average of 4.34 pitches per plate appearance in 299 trips to the plate, and Punto in just 166, saw 4.21. While these are small samples, they are not terribly atypical of either player. Both of these guys work their at bats, take walks frequently and will not make an undue number of outs.

This is interesting because it may be that the Red Sox front office has found a new inefficiency in the market. While many people outside of the "sabermetic" community love to mock the emphasis put on OBP in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball (in book or movie form), the wide spread use of metrics like OPS, wOBA and True Average has turned the focus to a more complete view of how a hitter achieves value. That is a good thing, of course, but when a team is searching for low cost role players, they can’t expect to pluck a name from the top of the wOBA leaderboard. Boston signed Nick Punto for two years/ $3M and acquired the arbitration-eligible Ryan Sweeney as a second player in the Andrew Bailey deal which cost them one significant player in Josh Reddick and two low minor, low ranked prospects. Both deals seem like pretty significant bargains when you consider that both players are top tier defenders and near-average or better when it comes to not making an out.

Considering the presence of sluggers like David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis, the Red Sox can likely survive with two players who have limited ability to rack up extra bases. Batting low in the line up, Sweeney and Punto will not be easy outs, like so many number eight or number nine hitters. The major weakness in their game, hitting for power, will no appear to be all that important in the Boston line up, while their greatest strength as hitters is an excellent compliment to the superior sluggers above them in the order. Pitchers will pay dearly for walking these two to bring up the top of the order.