Yasiel Puig's pinch-hit home run Tuesday night came after a string of controversial moments in recent days. (AP)
After two days of controversy regarding the potential drawbacks of his unbridled play and the level of his maturity, Dodgers rookie sensation Yasiel Puig began Tuesday night's game against the Marlins on the bench. It was done less as a form of punishment by manager Don Mattingly (Puig had arrived late to Marlins Park) than as a way to give Puig a breather during his recent slump. Nonetheless, the rookie left his indelible imprint on the game.
With the score knotted at 4-4, Puig entered the game in the bottom of the sixth inning as part of a double switch. The right fielder came to bat to lead off the top of the eighth with the score unchanged, and got a first-pitch fastball from Miami's Dan Jennings with which he could do business:
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The home run was the 22-year-old phenom's first since Aug. 1 and his 12th of the year. It was also his eighth with the score within one run in either direction, and it gave Los Angeles a lead that it would not relinquish en route to a 6-4 win. Puig had another plate appearance in the ninth, but he popped out on the first pitch with two on and two out, a result that would have been more frustrating had his previous hit not righted so many wrongs.
Indeed, a series of controversial moments both on and off the field had recently become the focus of discussions about Puig, taking the spotlight off his impressive accomplishments, which have helped the Dodgers swing 16 games in the standings since his June 3 debut. It started with Puig's blunders during Saturday's and Sunday's games against the Phillies. In the former, he made the final out of an inning at third base after tagging up at second on a fly ball to shallow center field. In the latter, he was picked off first in the top of the sixth inning, then allowed a trailing runner to get into scoring position in the bottom of the sixth due to an overaggressive throw to third. They were mistakes, yes, but none were tremendously costly when one considers the context, as as can be illustrated via the changes in Win Probability Added via the Baseball-Reference.com box scores.
In Saturday's game, Puig's out at third base came when Los Angeles held a 1-0 lead in the third inning (with ace Clayton Kershaw on the mound, it's worth adding); the out lowered the Dodgers' probability of winning from 64 percent to 58 percent -- a change that's about as costly as putting the leadoff man aboard in the middle innings of a one-run game. For example, Philadelphia's Domonic Brown singled off Kershaw to lead of the bottom of the fifth, lowering L.A.'s chances of winning from 74 percent to 68 percent. When Brown was picked off two batters later, the Dodgers' chances for the win went from 73 percent to 79 percent. In an absolute sense, Puig's mistake was about on par with that of Brown, but in a relative sense, Brown's was much more critical given its occurrence two innings later, in a higher-leverage situation. Oh, and Los Angeles wound up winning, 5-0.
In Sunday's game, Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels picked off Puig at first base with the Dodgers in front 2-1. Puig had led off the sixth by reaching first on an error by Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley, raising L.A.'s chances of victory from 67 to 71 percent. But Puig's subsequent pickoff lowered that number to 65 percent. His overaggressive throw in the bottom of the inning was potentially the more costly mistake; a one-out single by Brown with Utley on first had raised the Phillies' win odds from 38 percent to 54 percent because --after Puig's heave -- Brown, the go-ahead run, took second. Even so, Brown's extra base was only a small part of that 16-point change; the odds swung so heavily in Philadelphia's favor because, as the home team, they also had Utley, the tying run, on third base. Utley did eventually score on a groundout, but Brown was left stranded. The Dodgers wound up losing 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth, but not because of Puig; rather, third baseman Hanley Ramirez made a pair of costly errors. The first put the winning run on base. The second allowed it to score.
The point here isn't simply to explain away Puig's mistakes. There's no disputing that he makes them, and some of them are worthy of the ol' triple facepalm. Eventually, he'll have to minimize those in order to maximize his potential. But in the grand scheme they don't loom as large as some suggest. He is hitting a searing .352/.412/.567 in 291 plate appearances, a performance that is 23 runs above average according to B-Ref's version of WAR. His baserunning includes being caught stealing six times in 13 attempts, as well as making eight outs on the bases -- already tied for second in the league. But his baserunning also includes a 56 percent rate of successfully taking extra bases on hits (the league average is 41 percent). B-Ref's WAR baserunning component ultimately debits him one run for all of that, a negligible amount. As for the fielding, ESPN's Stats and Information had this to say:
The all-or-nothing aspect to Puig’s game seems to be true at bat and in the field. Baseball Info Solutions, which tracks defensive data for major league teams and media, had credited Puig with 25 Good Fielding Plays (think plays that would likely merit a Web Gem nomination) entering Tuesday, the most of any outfielder in the major leagues since Puig’s debut June 3.
Of those 25, 20 came on plays on which Puig either made a difficult catch or got to a ball quickly to prevent a baserunner from taking an extra base.
But Puig also was credited with 22 Defensive Misplays & Errors, also the most in the majors in that span. His most common miscues were six offline or unnecessary throws, allowing a runner to take an extra base, and four instances in which he mishandled a base hit, allowing either the hitter or another runner to advance.
Even with those extremes, Puig is +8 runs in terms of the observation-based Defensive Runs Saved system in B-Ref's version of WAR. His total bWAR of 3.8 -- which accounts for the good, the bad, and the ugly among his contributions on offense, defense and baserunning -- leads all Dodgers hitters and is tied for 17th in the league among position players, even though every player above him has more plate appearances. He's a high-impact player who was an essential part of the team's recent 42-8 run, matching the best 50-game stretch of the past century.
As three other incidents this week showed, however, Puig can also be a handful in other ways:
• Prior to Monday's game, following a 20-minute pregame session with the media -- due largely to the attention that comes with the Miami area's large Cuban-American population and the night's matchup with fellow defector and NL Rookie of the Year candidate Jose Fernandez -- Puig shouted an expletive in Spanish in relation to a TMZ account of his outing the night before with LeBron James. Many took it literally, though Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles, who witnessed the scene, said via Twitter that it was "in jest and not addressed to anyone specifically."
• In the fifth inning of Monday's game, Puig struck out on three pitches, the second of which was a borderline call that home plate umpire John Hirschbeck rang up as a strike. Puig showed some nonverbal displeasure by rolling his eyes after the at-bat and Hirschbeck ripped off his mask and yelled back at him, apparently trying to provoke an ejection-worthy response. Puig didn't take the bait, remaining in the game but finishing 0-for-5 with a pair of K's in a 6-2 loss.
• Prior to Tuesday's game, Puig showed up 45 minutes late and was fined by manager Don Mattingly during a closed-door meeting. But Puig's benching to start the game pertained to his slump, not his tardiness. Before the game, the manager publicly addressed some of his concerns about Puig's in-game mistakes, including the confrontation with Hirschbeck. From DodgersScribe.com's Anthony Jackson:
“[Sitting Puig] was the easy part,” Mattingly said. “That was simply baseball. Yasiel has been struggling. Actually, the whole heart of our lineup has been struggling. This just seemed like the right time. This is just the lineup I feel gives us our best chance to win tonight. In a sense, I need to pay closer attention to when he needs a day off. It’s so so easy to keep putting him in the lineup because he always has so much energy, but everybody needs a day off now and then.”
From MLB.com's Ken Gurnick:
"These [mistakes] are the spring training stuff we talked about when you were asking why not bring him up," Mattingly said. "You want them to know the scoreboard, know the outs, who's coming up. These are mistakes you don't want to see. But you take the good with the bad."
Reading the entirety of Mattingly's comments via both sources -- as well as his earlier ones regarding Puig -- the Dodgers' manager appears to have a good handle on the situation and an understanding of the context in which Puig is making his mistakes. Specifically, that Puig is a young, high-energy player who is new to the U.S. and the way the game is played here. After all, Puig was called up after just 63 minor league games -- due to a slew of outfield injuries -- before many of his rougher edges could be sanded down.
It's a stretch to say that Puig has singlehandedly saved L.A.'s season, but the team was 23-32 and last in the NL West prior to his memorable debut, with a 16.3 percent chance of making the playoffs according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds. Thanks to his energy and his production -- which combine to make for an exceptional highlight reel -- the Dodgers have gone 46-18 in his starts and 50-20 overall, and they now have a 98.8 percent chance of making the postseason. Mattingly, who nearly lost his job before Puig showed up, understands that on balance, the rookie is a huge part of the club's success. The rest of the baseball world should keep the same perspective.
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