Assessing Yasiel Puig after Year 1
The supremely talented Dodgers outfielder is showing signs of baseball growth
When you are a playmaker, your "moments" -- those times that make people remember you -- can be epic. Usually, your playmaker moments are epically good. But when they aren't, they can be epically bad.
So Yasiel Puig can make a catch like he did against the Mets a week and a half ago, going full speed (20-plus mph, according to Sport Science), outrunning another super athlete in Matt Kemp to get to the ball and diving on his backhand side for the grab. He seemingly flew out of nowhere to make that play. And obviously, he can swing the bat, living among the league leaders in average, home runs and RBIs while sporting an astronomical 1.036 OPS to boot. That is the epically good.
The epically bad centers on Puig's decision-making: how he uses his rocket arm and his speed on the bases. To go with what seems like a daily dose of heroic plays and otherworldly displays of his talent, he often gives extra opportunity to his opponent in the field or runs into outs on his own. In fact, he leads the league with outs made on the bases, with nine.
But despite the public mistakes he has made at various times, Puig has shown great improvement since he came to the majors a year ago, especially in reducing how often he chases pitches out of the strike zone. He is limiting how much he commits to a pitcher's pitches instead of the pitches he can drive.
On Sunday night against the Pirates, his calm at the plate was evident in every at-bat. And it is truly the calm before the storm of his powerful swing.
Sometimes it seems that everything he does is a highlight reel. I had a front-row seat with ESPN's broadcast team for the Dodgers' May 22 game against the Mets, and again Sunday against the Pirates. And I saw that there can be no doubt about his magnetism on the field. For better or for worse.
More and more often these days, it has been for the better.
I don't wish it on anyone to have a camera on them for an entire three-hour game, as ESPN did on Puig during at Citi Field. But that exposure, plus my in-person observations, provide an excellent data collection tool to further my understanding of his complete game. Here are my impressions from watching him from "play ball" to the final out.
No. 1: Puig has legendary talent
The talent is obvious. His bat speed, his ability to accelerate from a standstill to full speed. His tools are remarkable. The ball jumps off his bat in batting practice and the game, and he uses the entire field with power. He can change a game just on his tools alone.
No. 2: He has improved at the plate
His chase percentage has gone down roughly 10 percent since last season, which is the largest reduction in all of baseball. Not to mention that it has gone down every month since his debut a year ago. That was noticeable in the early counts. He is no longer flailing after getting ahead with a 1-0 count. He laid off borderline pitches when he had the count in his favor. He already has walked 26 times this season -- he had only 36 walks after he came up on June 3 last year. His manager, Don Mattingly, worried when Puig went on a hitting streak earlier this season. "I thought because of the streak, he would get caught up in getting a hit and go backwards on the strides he made with his discipline," Mattingly said. "But when it ended, he still was getting on base by walks."
No. 3: Puig's teammates support him
Puig challenges his teammates to help him by telling him when he makes mistakes. Juan Uribe, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez have taken a particular interest in giving him direction. This effort, along with the many times he has put his body on the line to make a big play, makes for a growing level of respect in the clubhouse.
No. 4: He is still young
He is 23 years old. When I was 23, I was fighting my way to Double-A and making plenty of mistakes on the bases. In today's game, being hot for a month in the minors gets you promoted, gets you an opportunity at the big league level, ready or not. With the dollars invested in this level of talent now, players have to be ready very early for a long haul that likely can include public struggles and learning curves at the major league level. Most players at Puig's age have an area of their game that is incomplete and far from major league caliber. But if you have the bat, as Puig does, teams will have patience. As Mattingly said before Sunday's game: "Nowadays, you have to coach more at the big league level. Guys advance after a good half in the minor leagues. They arrive with things to learn."
No. 5: Baserunning is not instinctive for him
Puig is a runaway train; and typical of naturally aggressive performers, the tendency is to let him go so he will not become tentative in other areas of his game. So he is running into outs, seemingly unaware of game situations at times, trusting his unharnessed natural ability to see him through. He has the speed to be an impact player on the bases, but baserunning is learned by repetition more than anything -- reps, along with the people to teach it. With coaches such as Davey Lopes on hand with the Dodgers, Puig will learn. But it likely will take some time for the instincts and the repetitions to come together in a way that makes him an asset on the bases. Like Vladimir Guerrero, he will put pressure on defenses by never stopping, but if his over-hustling efforts keep turning into easy outs, opponents will just thank him for taking himself out of scoring position. He has a lot to improve, and the great baserunning decisions may not ever come with consistency, but his bat can make that deficiency less noticeable.
No. 6: He trusts his arm ... too much
On many balls hit to him, he dares runners to take the extra base, often intentionally playing back to let the ball come to him to give the runner a chance to be bold. Smart baserunners will bait him into a mistake, and that may make for many teaching moments. Then it will be up to him to change his approach. Instead of showcasing his rocket arm, he needs to learn that it is more important to get to the ball quickly and get rid of it to stop runners from advancing and third-base coaches from waving for the extra base.
No. 7: On defense, he is not ready on every pitch
When I saw him against the Mets, he was not set up in an athletic position on many pitches. With his talent, he can make up for that more often than not; but in the outfield, even when the ball is not hit to you, you have a responsibility. You always have somewhere to be, someone to back up. On a pickoff attempt, for example, a right fielder should be running toward first base just in case. Puig was often standing still, caught flat-footed even when the pitch was on the way, and he was losing a couple of steps from the setup alone. This is easily correctable; and to his credit, less than two weeks later in Sunday night's game against the Pirates, he appeared to be prepared for the play much more frequently.
No. 8: Puig is under a lot of pressure
Much has been documented about his journey here to play baseball in the States. He has a lot of handlers, expectations, uncertainty. He is living for the moment, given he has had times when tomorrow seemed unsure. There is a respect for his "live for today" approach that shines through in the energy he brings to the game and the Dodgers.
Puig will be an impact player for a long time, and he will get better at learning the nuances of the game and managing on-field perceptions if he keeps accepting input from all the experience around him in the Dodgers' organization and throughout the league. He set the bar high by expressing to his manager that he wants to be remembered like Derek Jeter.
In the meantime, he can choose to see defense as he sees offense and connect the dots that it is just as much about the plan before the ball is pitched as it is about what he does with his lightning-quick hands, super speed and rocket arm. He has made huge strides in a very short period of time, making his talent more than just a mirage. He can commit to developing and adapting his talent. And if nothing else, that talent is worth paying to see.