With hot start, Yasiel Puig looks to put poor 2015 behind him
The Dodgers finally gave up a run on Thursday—12 of them in fact, en route to a defeat by the Giants—to see their season-opening scoreless streak at 31 innings come to an end, one short of the 1963 Cardinals' record. Nonetheless, the reigning three-time NL West champions have plenty of reasons to be encouraged about the shape of their team thus far, particularly the play of Yasiel Puig. One of the game's most enigmatic and electrifying players is showing signs of returning to top form.
The 25-year-old Puig is off to an 8-for-15 start, with two triples and a home run. He's collected at least one hit and scored a run in every game, with multiple hits in three of the four. Though he went 2 for 5 on Thursday, it marked his first game of the season without an extra-base hit or an RBI. Obviously, he's not going to keep up this torrid pace, but his performance offers hope that he can reclaim his spot as a centerpiece of Los Angeles's offense.
Puig hit just .255/.322/436 last season, well off the scorching .319/.391/.534 clip of his 2013 rookie season or even his .296/.382/.480 showing in '14, his first full season in the majors and one in which he earned All-Star honors. While he posted an MVP-caliber 151 OPS+ in that two-season span—fifth in the majors behind Mike Trout (174), Miguel Cabrera (169), Andrew McCutchen (162) and Paul Goldschmidt (159)—Puig slipped to a modest 109 last year, playing in just 79 games. He served two six-week stints on the disabled list for hamstring strains, first from late April to early June for an injury of his left leg, and then from late August to early October for his right leg.
Both injuries came just as Puig was finding his stroke. In his eight games before the first injury, he hit .355/.444/.581 with two homers in 36 plate appearances, going hitless only in the game in which he departed early; he was in the midst of a 10-game hitting streak before his second DL trip, batting .342/.390/.526 in 38 PA. In between those stretches, he hit just .235/.298/.418, struggling to make contact and often looking lost at the plate. Including his token appearances in the Division Series against the Mets, he went just 1 for 11 with five strikeouts in his five games after returning from the second strain.
Understandably, the condition of Puig's hamstrings had much to do with his struggles; he simply wasn't as explosive, fast or strong. Nor was he as fun, given that he stopped flipping his bat in an effort toward conformity. While the Dodgers may have benefited slightly from Puig's backing off from his sometimes-reckless abandon on the base paths—he was thrown out just twice at second, third or home compared to 20 times in the previous two seasons—the overall package was a pale shadow of his dynamic performance from his first two big league seasons.
While the reasons for Puig’s decline may have had their root in his physical condition, the backdrop of controversy within which they occurred couldn’t have helped. Molly Knight's book, The Best Team Money Can Buy, was published last summer and shined a light on Puig's polarizing presence within the clubhouse. That book and subsequent reports exposed arguments with teammates—including a 2014 incident in which Zack Greinke was said to have thrown Puig's suitcase into the street and one from last spring in which he nearly came to blows with Justin Turner.
The perception of Puig continued to take additional hits after the season ended. In November, former Mariners coach Andy Van Slyke—whose son Scott, is an outfielder on the Dodgers—strongly implied during a St. Louis radio appearance in November that Clayton Kershaw told management to "get rid of Puig." Van Slyke took pains not to use Kershaw's name, but referred to the request as coming from "the best player—the highest-paid player on the Los Angeles Dodgers," an unmistakably apt description of the three-time NL Cy Young winner and his $30 million salary. Scott Van Slyke, who has been described as Kershaw's best friend on the team, both denied relaying such information and apologized to the pitcher for the controversy, and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman denied that the ace made such a request. (Kershaw and Puig were said to have mended fences while part of MLB’s goodwill tour of Cuba in December.)
In November, Puig ran into off-the-field trouble when TMZ reported that he was involved in a nightclub altercation in Miami in which he reportedly pushed his sister, placing him in the path of MLB's new domestic violence policy. Further investigation revealed that the only physical aspect of the incident involved Puig and a bouncer in a shoving match, with both sides declining to press charges against each other; in March, MLB announced that its investigation revealed no reason to discipline Puig.
But wait, there's more. In December, a few weeks after the initial report of the nightclub incident, an unnamed former Dodger told Bleacher Report's Scott Miller that Puig was "the worst person I've ever seen in this game," characterizing him as "beyond redemption." That player was never identified, but it's hard not to extrapolate from those incidents and other such reports to the voluntary off-season departures of both Greinke and manager Don Mattingly, of whom Puig said this spring, "We didn't understand each other."
Recognizing that there was little reason to unload Puig while his value was so depressed, Friedman refused to trade him. Instead, he asked his slugger to lose weight under the belief that Puig's bulk might make him more susceptible to injuries, and he complied. By late January, he reportedly had lost around 15 pounds, down to 240 from his listed weight of 255. New manager Dave Roberts was said to offer Puig a clean slate in their first meeting in early Feburary, and in early March, Kershaw expressed his approval with the new-look Puig's work ethic, with Roberts and other teammates reportedly encouraged by his progress in reintegrating himself into the clubhouse culture.
Enough gossip. Thus far, the two things that stand out about Puig's play in this young season are an improved approach at the plate and the high quality of his contact. Obviously, we're talking about very small sample sizes here, but via FanGraphs, Puig has swung at just 45.5% of the pitches he's seen, down from a career mark of 51.3% and a 2015 mark of 54.2%, with both his out-of-zone and in-zone rates falling substantially. Meanwhile, he's making contact more frequently when he swings (86.7%, up from an 81.8% career mark), and he's hitting lasers. Of the 11 balls he's put into play for which there's StatCast data (out of 13 overall), his average exit velocity of 104.3 mph trails only Carlos Gonzalez (105.7) and Carlos Correa (104.9), and the mark is well above his average of 90.4 mph last year. Wile just 62 of his 190 balls with StatCast data were clocked at 100 mph or higher last year, 10 of 11 have made the grade this year.
In an MLB Tonight clip from Wednesday examining the way Puig has been scorching the ball, the broadcast noted that Puig's average exit velo to that point was 104.2 mph, whereas the league average to that point was 89.6 mph:
Given the sample sizes under discussion, Puig is bound to regress, particularly as he faces a wider selection of pitchers on teams better than the Padres. Still, everything he has shown this spring suggests he's pointed in a different direction than last year. That's all the more important for the Dodgers, given that Andre Ethier is potentially out of commission until June due to a leg fracture and that the jury is still out on the extent to which Yasmani Grandal and Joc Pederson can rebound from their second-half 2015 slides. At last, one of the game's brightest young stars is ready to step back into the spotlight. That seems worthy of a bat flip.