Commentary

For Puig, some gold-to-rust caution

His future looks certain right now. But here's living proof that it might not happen.

Updated: September 20, 2013, 12:04 PM ET
By Kenny Legan | Special to ESPN.com

It started with a thunderous sprint. Then came a laser. Last was a rocket.

By the time his second major league game ended on June 4, Yasiel Puig had already doubled, thrown a runner out at first base from right field for a game-ending double play, and homered twice – he'd displayed his entire arsenal. And throughout the rest of his first month in the majors, he continued to obliterate the box score, hitting an astounding .436 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs in 26 June games.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsYasiel Puig is tearing it up as a rookie. But sometimes, the second season is tougher.

He has slowed down a bit since then, taking double the games and the next two months to match his first month's home run and RBI totals. He is also batting just .246 in September. And of course, there has been the base-running and fielding breakdowns he's had as the season has progressed.

Despite that, Puig is still one of the favorites to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award, and rightly so. As his first year wraps up and his second season looms on the horizon, it's easy to imagine Puig could be just as good, if not better, in 2014, just as last season's Rookie of the Year winners Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were in 2013.

But, of course, success is not guaranteed. There have been several players throughout the years who can serve as gold-to-rust cautionary tales for Puig.

These flashes in the pan lit the league on fire their first seasons, topping numerous charts -- including a music chart in one instance -- but couldn't keep the flames fanned before silently exiting the league just a few years later.

There's Kevin Maas, the 1990 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up. Maas hit 21 home runs in 79 games for the Yankees his rookie season, but followed it up with just 23 in almost double the amount of games in '91.

"I got impatient," Maas said.

[+] EnlargeJoe Charboneau
AP Photo/Mark Duncan"Super Joe" Charboneau never regained his Rookie-of-the-Year form.

Then there's Bob Hamelin, the 1994 AL Rookie of the Year. Hamelin went from batting .282 with 24 home runs in 101 games in '94 to .168 and seven homers in 72 games the next year.

"The main thing is that obviously I didn't make enough adjustments to what the pitchers were doing," he said.

And let's not forget Joe Charboneau, perhaps the most famous gold-to-rust tale simply because his rookie season was just that good. In 1980, Charboneau led all rookies, and all Indians, with 23 home runs and 87 RBIs. And he didn't even play a full season (131 games).

"I was kind of a free swinger and sometimes free swinging has its advantages until pitchers catch on," Charboneau, who hit .289 as a rookie, said. The next year, troubled by an injured back that limited him to 48 games, Charboneau hit just .210 with four home runs.

Puig also tends to be a free swinger, and his decline in batting average since that sizzling start could suggest pitchers are starting to catch on to his tendencies. So while he might seem unstoppable -- and certainly it appears more likely than not he'll have an All-Star career -- Puig could do well to listen to the advice of these former players who tore through the big leagues during their rookie campaigns but made precious few waves afterward.

"I haven't seen a lot of Puig's at bats, but I can only imagine he's swinging at several balls out of the strike zone," Maas said. "Pitchers aren't throwing him strikes. My gosh, that was me, man. I was such a disciplined hitter … I got out of that the last few years. Maybe because my bat speed slowed down a little bit and I tried to do too much with a pitch I couldn't do much with."

Maas was on a tear his rookie season, hitting for a .902 OPS and a .535 slugging percentage to go along with his 21 home runs -- jolting some electricity into the lifeless Yankees.

But in his second season, he chased pitches out of the zone, trying to hit the ball out of the park. His OPS dipped to .723 and his slugging percentage fell to .390. He did hit 23 home runs, but they came in just less than twice as many games (148).

"You start swinging at bad pitches and pitchers quickly pick up on it," Maas said. "I felt like I had to hit the ball over the wall at times. Pitchers learn quickly and they won't throw you a strike if you're not patient."

Sound familiar?

"When the pitchers keep pitching to you, what happens? [Puig] will keep swinging," Hamelin said. "Will he compound that and make it worse or will he lay off and take a few pitches? If he does that, he'll have success. If not, he'll have a longer adjustment period."

Maas' adjustment period ran out just five years after his rookie season. He played his last big league game in '95 with the Minnesota Twins and now works as a consultant for Charles Schwab in Northern California.

It was around the time that Maas departed it that another phenom broke onto the scene: the 6-foot-1, 240-pound, glasses-wearing Hamelin. Hamelin won the 1994 Rookie of the Year award, hitting 24 homers with a .599 slugging percentage in the strike-shortened season.

Hamelin says he was essentially a one-dimensional hitter. Pitchers picked up on that and he couldn't adjust.

"For me, it was hit for power and that was it," he said.

[+] EnlargeKevin Maas
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesKevin Maas had a sweet swing … 'til he lost track of the strike zone.

"When you're not playing well, your confidence goes down because you're not playing every day and you're not in a rhythm. It's the first time you don't have that type of success."

That last line is one that Hamelin and others focus on when it comes to Puig. How a player reacts to the hard times when the hits aren't coming so easily determines how long he has a spot in the league.

"You've got to run the course, throw those sliders, see if he's going to continue to chase them," Hamelin, now a scout for the Boston Red Sox, said. "[Puig] will need to figure out how to handle adversity when he doesn't have success and how he plays when he's not getting thrown strikes."

The player we talked to who dealt with the most adversity after his rookie season is "Super Joe" Charboneau. Like Puig, Charboneau went from Double-A in Chattanooga (when it was affiliated with the Indians) straight to the big leagues, where he became an immediate sensation. He even had a song named after him ("Go Joe Charboneau") that rose to No. 3 on the charts in Cleveland.

It might be a little unfair to climb all over Charboneau, though. In spring training after his rookie year, he hurt his back and played all season under the misdiagnosis of muscle spasms. Only later did Charboneau and the doctors dig a little deeper and discover multiple ruptured discs in his back, causing "Super Joe" to get two surgeries.

"I lost the type of swing I had with the back injury," Charboneau, now an alumni ambassador for the Indians, said. "I wasn't able to adjust to the new swing I had like a lot of the other players do."

[+] EnlargeBob Hamelin
Jonathan Daniel/Allsport/Getty ImagesBob Hamelin put his power to use as a rookie, but he couldn't adjust after that.

Charboneau, like the others, acknowledged that he began to chase pitches out of the zone more frequently after his initial success -- another bit of evidence that nothing is guaranteed even after a Rookie of the Year season.

"Obviously, there's not something you can say to a guy that's going to guarantee his success," Hamelin said. "That's why you play … Rookie of the Year is not who's going to be a better player. It's who's having a better year."

Case in point: The player who finished second to Hamelin in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1994 was a guy named Manny Ramirez.

Nobody went so far as to suggest Puig will be out of the league in a few years. Even if his offense doesn't measure up to the standard he's setting in 2013, he should still have his speed, athleticism and, most noticeably, the bazooka attached to his right shoulder.

But as in all sports, nothing is a given.

"It'll be how much you're going to hit," Hamelin said. "You know he's got the tools. He's got the speed and the arm. He's an exciting player."

"Who's more fun right now than Puig? Nobody."

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