In second season, Yasiel Puig continues to amaze, and even improve

Wednesday May 14th, 2014

After a slow start to the year, Yasiel Puig has a .326 batting average to go with seven home runs.
Harry How/Getty Images

Yasiel Puig does what he wants. He thumps his chest, he points to the sky, he drives too fast, he cup checks teammates and playfully mocks their styles of running, he tries to reach second base on grounders up the middle, he is attentive to children, he makes photographers for whom he has agreed to pose wait five hours and then come back the next day. Recently, he's also taken to flipping his bat.

Puig's spate of flippancy began in earnest on May 3, when he slugged a 440-foot home run off of the Marlins' Jacob Turner and flung his stick nearly as far. Puig couldn't wait to rid himself of his bat again four days later, against the Nationals, only this time what he seemed certain was another towering bomb landed safely in the glove of centerfielder Denard Span, several feet shy of the warning track.

Puig, though, was unembarrassed. Last Friday, against the Giants' Madison Bumgarner, he took another mighty swing. There went the ball, and there went the bat. As Puig neared home, Bumgarner waited nearby and expressed his displeasure about the 23-year-old Cuban's treatment of his lumber and, relatedly, of him. Puig was unbowed.

During spring training, Puig explained to me that even though he was aware that his brashness rubs some people the wrong way, he was not about to change, because it is an expression of who he is. "I'm going to keep playing like this, and even better than last year," he said. "I don't do it so they get bothered, I do it because that's my style of play."

Even so, the Bumgarners of the baseball world, of which there are many, were convinced that this was the year during which the other shoe would drop on Puig, and that he would get what was coming to him. Yes, his rookie season -- really, his rookie four months, as he wasn't called up until June 3 -- in 2013 had been always entertaining and often spectacular, but Year Two, we were told, was when we'd really get a sense of what he is. His unbridled style, both on and off the field, would catch up with him. Sophisticated pitchers would adjust to him and exploit his free-swinging, baseball-gods-angering ways, unless he made the wholesale changes that he seemed to resist.

If you stopped following him on April 18, you might have thought that all of that had happened. Through his first 14 games, Puig was batting just .235 with .723 OPS and one home run, five RBIs and a single steal. And you would be surprised to see where he stands less than four weeks later: As one of the most dangerous and productive all-around players in baseball.

After Tuesday night's 7-1 win over the Marlins, in which Puig got at least one hit for the 19th time in the 21 games he's played since his April 18 mini-nadir, he ranked near the top of baseball's overall leaderboard in most offensive categories that matter. He was 11th in batting average (.326); seventh in on-base percentage (.417); sixth in OPS (.980); sixth in RBIs (30). He had also added six home runs to his season's total.

He has, in fact, done precisely what he promised to do back in spring training, and what his legion of critics was sure was beyond him. He has stayed stubbornly true to himself, as his commitment to keeping a grasp on his bat for as little time as possible suggests, while becoming an even better player, not by making sweeping changes but via nuanced refinements.

According to Pitch F/X data at FanGraphs, he is hacking at fewer strikes (67.8 percent this year, down from 75.6 last season) and, more significantly, fewer balls (37 percent then, 26.7 percent now) -- the latter decrease the largest, year over year, for any player in the league. When he does swing, he is making more frequent contact, hitting 84 percent of pitches in the zone (versus 80.2 last year), and on 55.3 percent of pitches out of it (versus 49.2 in 2013). This has led to an improvement in both his strikeout rate (from 22.5 percent to 20.1) and walk rate (from 8.3 to 11).

Puig has also incrementally improved in other ways, especially on defense. In 2013, his notoriously undisciplined if sometimes sensational fielding led him to make five errors during the regular season, and -- famously -- two more during the Dodgers' season-ending Game 6 loss to the Cardinals in the NLCS. This year, he has yet to be credited with an error. He is, according to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating metric, currently the sixth-best rightfielder in the league.

There are, to be sure, areas of his game on which Puig might yet improve. While he was safe on each of his first four stolen base attempts, he was gunned down on each of his subsequent three, giving him a small-sample-size success rate of 57 percent that is essentially unchanged from last year, when he went 11 of 19 (58 percent). All in all, though, while much of the focus has remained on Puig's convention-defying antics, he has somewhat quietly played to at least the star level he established as a rookie -- and he has done so in a much more disciplined, and therefore sustainable, way. Yasiel Puig does what he wants, and he has so far shown that what he wants is to change in the areas that really count.

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