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Wednesday, October 2, 2013
How do you pitch to Yasiel Puig?

By Lee Singer
ESPN Stats & Information

For each of the eight remaining postseason teams, the Stats & Information team will offer a look at a key hitter and use Next-Level data to analyze how he might best be approached by opposing pitchers.

When the Los Angeles Dodgers called up Yasiel Puig on June 3, they were 23-32 (.418) and 8.5 games back in the NL West. From that point forward, they went 69-38 (.645) and won the division by 11 games.

While Puig certainly wasn’t the only reason for the turnaround – a healthy Zack Greinke and Hanley Ramirez were among the others – Puig developed into an impact player and helped carry the Dodgers to the postseason.

But how do you pitch to him? Let’s take a look at three keys.

Be careful early in the count
Puig’s first career HR came on the first pitch of his seventh at-bat, setting the tone for what would be one of the game’s most aggressive – and successful – hitters early in the count.

When Puig sees a first-pitch strike, he swings 68 percent of the time; only two hitters (Freddie Freeman and Carlos Gomez) swung at such pitches more often since Puig debuted.

Puig hit .551 with a 1.642 OPS on the first pitch, the third-highest OPS in the last 25 seasons behind Jim Edmonds in 2004 and Gary Sheffield in 2000. Puig’s nine first-pitch home runs ranked fourth in baseball, even though he didn't debut until June.

With so much success on the first pitch, it’s no surprise that the deeper the pitcher is able to get in the count against Puig, the more the advantage swings his way. This is the case for most hitters, but the difference is even more pronounced with Puig, as seen in the chart to the right.

He’s superman on the first two pitches and essentially a league-average hitter from the third pitch on.

Lefties: go upstairs
As with most right-handed hitters, Puig hit better against left-handed pitching (.340/.419/.583) than right-handed pitching (.312/.381/.516).

Left-handers worked Puig inside unlike any righty in baseball, throwing him a MLB-high 48 percent pitches on the inner third or further inside.

Puig found success on these pitches when he put the ball in play, hitting .333 and slugging .583. However, he also missed on about a third of his swings.

The area Puig is most vulnerable to left-handed pitching is up in the zone. He hit just .238 against pitches in that location without a single extra-base hit. He also swung and missed more than any righty in baseball from the time he debuted.

Righties: get him to chase
Puig showed the ability to handle everything righties threw at him during his rookie year. He hit .352 against fastballs (2/4-seam), .360 against changeups and splitters and even .270 against breaking balls, well above the major-league average of .216 in righty versus righty situations.

Where he struggled at times was with his approach, showing a tendency to expand the strike zone. His chase rate (35 percent) was 12th highest among right-handed hitters after his debut.

He showed even more of a tendency to go after breaking balls, chasing 48 percent of those that fell out of the zone (fourth-highest among right-handed hitters).

Puig made pitchers pay when they weren’t able to locate those breaking pitches. He hit a major-league-best .406 on breaking balls in the zone but .098 on those out of the zone, missing on 73 percent of swings against those pitches.

That makes him susceptible to someone like Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, who loves to get hitters out on sliders off the plate.

Puig versus Kimbrel will also be a must-watch matchup in this regard: If Kimbrel leaves a slider off the plate, Puig could crush it. He hit eight home runs against sliders from righties. The only players with more were Chris Davis and Miguel Cabrera, who each had nine.