Judgment Year for Yasiel Puig Approaches

Sometime in the next month or two, we can expect to see Sports Illustrated‘s latest list of “Most Overrated Baseball Players,” as voted on by the players themselves. Derek Jeter used to “win” this award, partly because he actually was overrated in certain aspects of his game (which paradoxically led to him being underrated in other parts) and partly because the other 749 players in baseball were jealous of him. Then Jeter got old and Bryce Harper showed up, and there was a new whipping boy for the overrated crowd. But last season, Harper turned into the player people have been expecting since he was 14, and he’s going to have to come back down to earth before anyone can, with a straight face, make the overrated claim about him.

Aside: I don’t like the word “overrated,” mostly because it has no actual definition. It usually either means “Other people like this player more than I do,” or “I am inflating how good other people think this player is and then I have one specific stat that will show that he’s not really that good in one specific way.” We saw both with Jeter; most people who thought he was overrated either hated the New York Yankees or focused solely on his defense and ignored the fact that he was a legitimately great hitter.

So anyway, who will take Harper’s place on this year’s list? My guess is Yasiel Puig.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a column titled “Five Bold Predictions for the 2015 Los Angeles Dodgers.” In that piece, I made five predictions that turned out to be false, although three of them looked pretty good at the All-Star break. One that never really took off was my prediction that Puig, and not Mike Trout, would be the best outfielder in Southern California.

As it turned out, Trout finished in the top two in the American League Most Valuable Player voting for the fourth straight time in his four-year career, while Puig played just 79 games and had an OPS+ of 109, about 40 points worse than his career mark heading into the season.

Will 2016 continue Puig’s decline? Or will 2015 eventually be remembered as a blip, like 2001 Frank Thomas or 1964 Willie McCovey?

The peak of Puig’s ability is enormous power to all fields, excellent speed on the bases, and perhaps the strongest outfield throwing arm in baseball. He is the prototype of the “five-tool player.” The knocks on him before 2015 were that he made a lot of mental mistakes (both in the field and on the bases) and that he was a poor teammate (showing up late, not getting along with teammates, etc.). Coming into 2016, add “injury history” to the list.

It is clear to me that even in 2013 and 2014, when Puig had very good seasons, he was not living up to his potential as a player. He is prone to lengthy slumps and nearly-as-lengthy hot streaks. Simply put, Puig has never played at his best for anywhere near a full season.

The question is: Is 2016 the year we finally see Puig at his best? I obviously thought 2015 was going to be that year; the only thing that has changed is that he had a lousy, injury-filled season last year.

Puig started off slowly last year, batting .136/.240/.318 through his first five games. He got hot, hitting .474/.545/.684 from April 13-23, but then he got hurt and missed 39 games between April 24 and June 6.

When he came back from that first injury, Puig was still hot. In the month of June, he hit .303/.384/.474. He only had one home run, but his six doubles and two triples made up at least somewhat for the lack of power. Of course, that June performance is a great example of arbitrary endpoints leading to bad analysis; Puig hit just .184/.286/.327 from June 15-30, dragging down the numbers he put up from June 6-14 (.519/.567/.741).

After June 14, Puig hit just .217/.277/.392 the rest of the season. Other than his 13-game hot streak from April 13 to June 14, Puig’s season was awful. He missed all of May and all of September, and he was largely ineffective when he was on the field.

How much of Puig’s poor play was the result of injuries? That is the million-dollar question. Considering that the late-April injury and the late-August injury were the same problem (right hamstring), it is reasonable to wonder if he was ever totally healthy between the two injuries. Unfortunately, it’s also impossible (for us) to know the answer.

Should we expect more health issues from Puig in 2016? Presumably, his hamstring has had plenty of time to completely heal, and a fully healed hamstring is just as good as a never-injured one. On the other hand, logic would suggest that a 260-pound behemoth with lightning speed might be more susceptible to leg injuries than the average player. Puig probably agrees, which is why he converted from a 260-pound behemoth to a 240-pound behemoth in the offseason. Rumor has it that Puig’s body fat percentage is currently around seven percent; for reference, that means that Puig’s lean body mass (all of him except the fat) weighs almost exactly as much as all of Adrian Gonzalez.

There are two ways to lower your body fat percentage: lose fat or build muscle. (Actually, most of the time it is a combination of the two, but there is generally one that factors in more than the other.) Puig has dropped about 20 pounds, which indicates that he has focused on the “lose fat” approach. For a professional athlete whose game is built on speed and agility, that seems like the smart choice.

Will it matter in his 2016 performance? It seems likely that the improved physical condition will help him avoid injury, and staying on the field is a prerequisite to being effective. The big X-factor, the thing we don’t know, is why Puig has always been susceptible to prolonged slumps. Without knowing the cause of the slumps, we can only guess whether better physical condition will help alleviate them.

Puig has had two seasons without any serious injuries and one season with. He was excellent (albeit not as excellent as he could potentially be) in the two healthy seasons, and he was lousy in the injured season. It seems reasonable to guess that a healthy Puig will be very good once again.

For Puig, though, very good might not be good enough. If he reverts back to 2013-14 levels in both playing ability and plays-well-with-others ability, he might just accomplish a rebuilding of his trade value and get a fresh start somewhere other than Los Angeles. What Dodgers fans (and presumably the Dodgers themselves) will be looking for is for Puig to that that next step, so cut down on his slumps and go from being “very good” to being “one of the best players in baseball” in accordance with his talent.

Puig just turned 25. He is entering his fifth season in professional baseball. I have always been inclined to give him a bit of a pass on the issues caused by lack of experience (in-game mistakes) and immaturity (locker-room mistakes). After four seasons in the United States playing professional ball, those excuses are mostly gone.

The time has come for Puig to show what he can do. It’s hard to say there’s a make-or-break season for a 25-year-old phenom, but this might be it.

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