Fantasy baseball season is nearly here, so to kick-start your 2016 draft prep, SI.com’s fantasy baseball expert Michael Beller will give a snapshot of certain players who may not necessarily be a breakout, a sleeper or a bust (all of which we’ll preview in the upcoming weeks), but could still prove influential this season.
The player: Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
• The 2015 stats: 311 plate appearances, .255/.322/.436. 11 homers, 38 RBI, 12 doubles 21.2% K%, 8.4 bb%, .181 ISO, 111 wRC+
• The three-year sample (162-game average): 677 plate appearances, .294/.371/.487 23 homers, 73 RBI, 13 steals, 35 doubles
• The SI rank: No. 74 overall, No. 28 OF
• The consensus rank (FantasyPros): No. 70 overall, No. 23 OF
• The skinny: Where to start? How about at the fact that there might not be a player with a greater range of possible outcomes this season than the mercurial Puig? There is a discount on his draft-day price, though not a significant one, and that’s going to force all fantasy owners to decide whether or not they want to roll the dice on one of the most electrifying, potentially disheartening players in the 2016 season.
Last year was an absolute nightmare for Puig, as well as anyone who drafted him at his 18.8 average draft position. He lost a total of two months to two different hamstring injuries, and when he was on the field, he didn’t come close to returning top-20 value. To be fair, we can’t be sure how much his balky hamstrings inhibited him all season. He succumbed to the first hamstring issue at the end of April, but he had gotten off to a solid start, hitting .279/.380/.465 with a pair of homers in his first 11 games. Puig actually hit pretty well for his first two weeks off the DL before going in the tank in mid-June. On July 1, he was slashing .295/.386/.467. By the end of the month, he was down to .254/.325/.429.
Injuries are one thing. They can happen to anyone, and can be just as easily washed away once the player returns to full strength. The real issue for Puig last year was his unraveling plate discipline. After making strides in his second year in the league, Puig regressed to his rookie season strikeout and walk rates in 2015. He swung at 34.8% of all pitches he saw out of the strike zone, which, while not as bad as his rookie year, was still 4.6 percentage points higher than what it was in 2014. You can see Puig’s tendency to chase, especially away, in the following heat maps from Brooks Baseball. The first is for 2013 and 2014, while the second is from last season.
The two purple zones in the far right column—off the plate away—from last season are particularly striking. Puig offered at 44% of all pitches that were on or just off the black at his belt and knees. He put 20 of those balls in play, going 2-for-20, and whiffed on another 13. That’s a tendency he needs to stop immediately.
It should come as no surprise that Puig made more weak contact last year than in his two previous major league seasons. His soft-hit rate, measured by FanGraphs, rose to 20.7%, which would have tied him for 22nd highest in the league if he had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. That area is usually the purview of light-hitting middle infielders and outfielders. Think Andrelton Simmons, Alcides Escobar and Jace Peterson, all of whom were in that range. All that weak contact helps to explain his .296 BABIP, by far the lowest of his career.
And yet, Puig somehow still managed 111 wRC+, which translates to a comfortably above-average offensive player. His line-drive rate and HR/FB ratio were both better than they were in 2014. He’s still just 25 years old, and put together a two-year run in which he slashed .305/.386/.502 with an average of 18 homers across 126 games. There’s no doubt he can get back to that player. It’s all a matter of him staying healthy and finding a measured approach at the plate.
Chances are we can take Puig’s rates from his first two years at face value. No one lucks their way into the above slash line across two major league seasons. Even if he doesn’t become the consistent 27-plus home-run threat he appeared to be his rookie season, he’ll always project to leave the yard at least 20 times with a full complement of plate appearances. The question for him is he can he stay disciplined, both at the plate and off the field? If the answers to those questions are yes, he could end up being one of the biggest bargains on draft day.
Puig’s ADP sits at 85.83, meaning he’s coming off the board at the end of the seventh or beginning of the eighth round of a typical 12-team draft. Whether or not he ends up on your roster will depend heavily upon the team you’ve built to that point. There’s a lot of risk, and even more potential reward, tied up in Puig. If you have a safe, reliable foundation, you should be more willing to take a chance that the 2013 and 2014 Puig is the real version. If you already have a few volatile players on your roster, you’ll likely want to go in another direction.
• The best-case scenario: Puig’s 2015 struggles owed entirely to his hamstring injuries. Now fully healthy, he gets back to his .300/.370/.480 ways, launching 20 to 25 homers, driving in 90 runs, swiping 10 bags, and bringing joy to all corners of the baseball world, except for San Francisco.
• The worst-case scenario: Puig cannot correct his plate discipline issues, and they completely undermine his obvious skills. His rates climb a bit from his injury-riddled 2015 campaign, but they don’t come close to approaching what he did in his first two years. His proclivity to swing at pitches out of the zone also costs him some power, and he falls short of the 20-homer mark again.