There may not be a more polarizing player in Major League Baseball than Yasiel Puig. People love him. People hate him. People think he is amazing. People think he is a train wreck. And sometimes, all of those opinions are held by the same person in a span of seconds. The opinions of Puig can be as impulsive as Puig himself.
There is no question that Puig is one of the most physically gifted athletes in baseball today. He has drawn physical comparisons to Bo Jackson from day one, although he has two inches and several pounds on Bo. Like Bo, Puig is big and muscular, stunningly fast, and has a tremendous throwing arm. Most importantly, like Bo, Puig is raw. And raw can be scary.
On Sunday, MLB.com camera crews caught up with Sandy Koufax, who opined on quite a few things. One thing that really stood out to me was his explanation of why he thinks Puig has made some of the dumb mistakes he has made in the past. Go to about 0:27 in the following video for Koufax’s thoughts on Puig:
I think, probably, he’s never played against talent that might be his equal. So he thought, ‘Okay, they’ll make a mistake. I can keep running, and they’ll screw it up.’ Well, it doesn’t happen here. So, I think he’s learned that.
I think Koufax is exactly right. Puig was 22 years old when he debuted with the Dodgers, and he had played only 63 games in the minor leagues. Watching him play at times, the only comparison I have been able to come up with is rec league softball. Sometimes, you’re standing on second base, and there’s a shallow flyout to right field, and you think, “Teams usually put their worst fielder in right, so what are the chances that he has a good enough arm to throw me out if I tag up and head for third?” In rec league softball, you’re usually right. In the Majors, you’re not.
Yasiel Puig didn’t grow up playing organized Little League, travel ball, high school, and college ball. If some of the mistakes seem born of inexperience, it is because they are.
Below is video of Clayton Kershaw‘s speech when he accepted his Cy Young and MVP Awards in January. The whole video is absolutely worth watching, but pay attention at 10:53 when he gets to Puig on his list of players to thank:
To Yasiel Puig: Thank you for showing me things on a baseball field I’ve never seen before. The most amazing talent I’ve ever seen.
So Puig is both inexperienced and remarkably talented. In trying to predict how he will perform in 2015, knowing that he is a lightning rod for both praise and criticism, it makes sense to try to remove emotion from the conversation. Let’s look at the strengths and weaknesses in his game, as well as whether he made any improvements in those areas from 2013 to 2014.
- Plate discipline. Puig had 48 percent more plate appearances in 2014 than in 2013. His strikeouts went up by just 28 percent (97 to 124), while his walks went up by 86 percent (36 to 67). Put another way, his K% went from 22.5 to 19.4, while his BB% went from 8.3 to 10.5, for a total K/BB improvement from 2.65 to 1.89. That is not an elite number by any means, but it is definitely strong enough to consider plate discipline both a STRENGTH and SIGNIFICANTLY IMPROVED.
- Baserunning. For all his speed, Puig is not a great baserunner. His stolen base success rate was 58% in 2013 and 61% in 2014. He was thrown out on the bases less frequently in 2014, but not significantly less, and still more than you would like to see. The Dodgers hit into two triple plays in 2014, neither of them conventional, and on both of them, Puig was the third out while trying to catch the defense napping and take an extra base. To Puig’s credit, he did appear to recognize his base-stealing problems during the season. After being caught stealing on three consecutive attempts over four games, he sat at 50% (7 SB, 7 CS) on June 15. He then did not attempt another steal until August 26, a span of 56 games. From August 26 through the end of the season, he was 4-for-4 in stolen base attempts. The Dodgers have an excellent base running coach in Davey Lopes, and both Carl Crawford and Jimmy Rollins have been highly successful base stealers in their careers. With 1480 stolen bases between them at an 82% success rate, the resources are available for Puig to learn. Overall, I would rate his base running as a WEAKNESS but IMPROVING.
- Defense. Here is something that I rarely hear anyone mention: Puig’s arm is not just strong, it is accurate. Spectacularly accurate. He doesn’t always throw the ball to the right place, but he always throws it exactly where he meant to. And to say his arm is strong is like saying Giancarlo Stanton is powerful — entirely accurate, and it doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story. Go do a Google Video search for Yasiel Puig throw and take a few minutes (or hours) to marvel at what he can do. He led National League outfielders in both assists and double plays last year. His routes are sometimes not great (although sometimes they are), but his speed and athleticism, along with the best arm in baseball, makes his defense a definite STRENGTH, while still leaving ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT.
- Power. This might be the most interesting thing to watch in 2015 with Puig. In 2013, he hit a home run in 4.4 percent of his plate appearances. In 2014, that number dropped to 2.5 percent. A lot of that drop can be attributed to the longer season — at the end up July, when Puig had roughly the same number of plate appearances as he had in 2013, he had a slash line of .319/.406/.552, for an OPS 33 points better than his rookie line of .319/.391/.534. His home run rate was still down from his rookie year (4.4 percent to 3.0), but his nine extra doubles and seven extra triples more than made up for the six fewer home runs. In 2015, we will probably start to get a better idea of whether Puig is going to be a true “power hitter” or more of a guy who gets his numbers from doubles and triples. I don’t necessarily think he needs to hit a ton of home runs to be an offensive force; he was a much more complete offensive weapon in 2014 before he faded down the stretch than he had been in his rookie season. I’d call his power a STRENGTH with a QUESTION MARK. The big question is whether he can avoid prolonged slumps, which brings us to…
- Consistency. It is remarkable that Puig’s numbers ended up so good in 2014, considering that he had two prolonged slumps (.246/.318/.348 from May 30 through July 8, and .237/.328/.328 from August 4 through the end of the season). It is a testament to just how good he was when he was good (.398/.492/.731 in May, for example). Puig wears his emotions on his sleeve, and he seems to be more prone than some to letting struggles get in his head. If he can learn to shake off a bad at-bat or a bad game more quickly, he can hopefully keep his slumps short enough to be measured in days, rather than months. Obviously, every player would be a Hall of Famer if you only counted his good games, but Puig is so good when he’s good that if he can even shorten his slumps to weeks at a time, he is a legitimate MVP candidate. For now, his consistency is a WEAKNESS, and it is, in my opinion, the KEY TO THE SEASON.
I am high on Yasiel Puig. If he had been playing organized baseball for a dozen years and was still making the mistakes he does, I would probably have very little hope. But considering Puig’s lack of experience and his demonstrated ability to learn (improved stolen base success, smarter throws from the outfield, fewer base running gaffes, etc.), I have a fair amount of confidence that he will continue to learn and improve in his age 24 season. For me, the only question is how rapid the progression will be — will he be an MVP candidate in 2015, or will he just take a solid step forward?
I expect a season right around .300/.400/.500, with 25 home runs and 15 stolen bases with a better success rate. His MVP chases will probably wait until at least 2016, but he will clearly be the offensive MVP of the Dodgers. And if he can continue to reduce his number of on- and off-field blunders, we might be able to just focus on his remarkable talent.
Note: If you take my advice and spend some time watching Puig highlight videos, please post links to your favorites in the comments.