Time to ease on Puig expectations
Rookie's amazing start with Dodgers has been fun, but sustainability is the key
LOS ANGELES -- Heath Bell feigned ignorance, or at least it seemed feigned. The Arizona Diamondbacks' closer was asked for his thoughts on what Yasiel Puig has been doing over the past week and a half.
Don't you watch highlight shows? Yasiel Puig?
"Oh yeah, but I mean, I'd never heard of him from the minor leagues or anything," Bell said.
It takes more than eight brilliant games, even if you bat .500 with four home runs, to impress people who make a living in Major League Baseball.
"It's the second week. It hasn't even been a month," Bell said. "Usually, it's a month or two before the scouts find out your strengths and weaknesses. The true test of any guy who comes up hot isn't, 'Can he do it for a week, a month, a first half or even a season.' It's, 'What about the next year?' If he still does it then, you're like, 'Oh, you're a stud.'
"From what I've seen on video, he looks like pretty much a complete player."
Bell offers a name to demonstrate his belief that a fast start is nothing more than that. Jorge Toca played with Bell on the New York Mets 12 seasons ago. Toca used to tear up the Grapefruit League every spring. He batted .429 in eight games in 2000.
"They were lumping him in with [Mike] Piazza and John Olerud," Bell said.
Toca's last major league game, the 25th of his career, came in 2001. Not that ticking off a list of players who started fast only to sputter -- Ben Grieve, Kerry Wood and Todd Hollandsworth come to mind -- is to foretell a flame-out coming for Puig. It is merely to offer a reminder not to believe that the present always predicts the future.
Baseball is part of life, life is part of the universe and they're all fundamentally ephemeral.
Puig is off to the hottest start in the history of one of baseball's oldest, most-storied franchises. Enjoy the moment. Young talents like Puig don't come along often, though, oddly, two others -- Mike Trout and Bryce Harper -- happen to be orbiting the game at the very same moment.
Just expect that it will, at some point, swerve in a different direction. The Dodgers know this, they're bracing for it and yet they're more than willing -- maybe even desperate -- to ride this streak as far as it can take them.
The main reason it has to change is that it is in so many peoples' interest. Even as Puig continues to generate energy at Dodger Stadium, teams are spending tens of thousands of dollars dispatching their advance scout to study Puig's movements, churning out data from statistical services and talking over his tendencies in pitcher's meetings. The idea is to unplug the primary source of energy from the Dodgers lineup.
"They're going to get these charts. These things are coming out. They're going to have where your hits are, where you don't hit and what your average is in this quadrant and this quadrant, what your average is on the breaking ball, what your average is on the changeup," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "It's going to get deeper and deeper, and that's where it will be an adjustment. It's like, 'OK, they're doing this, do you recognize it?' "
Before Tuesday night's game, hitting coach Mark McGwire gestured Puig over to his perch behind the batting cage. He extended a fist bump, then jumped right in on that night's starting pitcher, Ian Kennedy.
He began to discuss how Kennedy probably would try to work Puig away with cutters and curveballs. Puig smiled and showed McGwire how he would reach for such pitches, mimicking an awkward lunging swing.
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McGwire got a serious expression on his face, spit in the dirt and said, "Spit on those."
Of course, neither Puig nor McGwire could anticipate what Kennedy had in store for Puig that night and what it would set off. He threw him fastballs in on the hands and, in one case, a 92-mph fastball that ricocheted off his shoulder and struck him in the nose. The pitch set up a wild brawl later in the game and McGwire, who is protective of his star pupil, got face-to-face with both Arizona manager Kirk Gibson and coach Matt Williams. Both McGwire and Puig were ejected, as were four other participants.
The Dodgers feel good about Puig's ability to adjust to what pitchers have in store for him. While he has a deserved reputation as a free swinger (he didn't walk all spring), they're not seeing a player who hacks wildly. He has struck out only five times in 33 plate appearances. He is swinging at 57.8 percent of the pitches he sees and 36.4 percent of the balls he sees. Those rates are high but not alarming.
Puig's parents were both engineers in Cuba, and the Dodgers think he has the intelligence to be the cat more often than he is the mouse in the games of adjustment to come.
"They're already trying. They try to go away; they try to go in. The problem is, certain guys can only do certain things with a baseball," Mattingly said. "The area you may have to go to get him out, you may not have a pitcher who can do that. Maybe it's a certain kind of movement that gives him more trouble, then you try to go there -- and if that's not your strength …"
Mattingly trailed off, but the conclusion of his sentence was clear. That's when Puig hits the ball 439 feet, as he did the other day. The quest to map out the holes in Puig's swing has already begun, but Puig has the raw power to make small mistakes into big mistakes. Thus, it's dangerous to tinker as you go. He has the speed, when he gets on base, to disrupt a pitcher's rhythm and force the fielders to make extraordinary plays to get him out. He has the aggressiveness to frazzle nerves. He has the charisma for the Dodgers to build a marketing campaign or two around. His could be a special story. It's just that only the title page has been written so far.
Maybe it's just a matter of time, but there's a lot of room in maybe.
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