As the Dodgers try to hold onto first place in the NL West, they need Yasiel Puig to re-discover his All-Star form.
The good and the bad of Yasiel Puig were on display during the Dodgers' 9-4 win over the Padres on Monday night. The 23-year-old centerfielder emerged from his extended slump long enough to drive in his first run since Aug. 15, but he also followed a good running catch of a shallow flyball with a throwing error that broke all hell loose, Little League style.
The latter play came during the top of the sixth inning. The Dodgers had built a seemingly insurmountable 8-1 lead to back Clayton Kershaw, but the Padres put two runners on base to start the inning via a Yangervis Solarte walk and a Rymer Liriano single. Kershaw struck out Jedd Gyorko, then got Rene Rivera to pop up. A charging Puig covered a fair bit of ground to make the catch, but after a pump fake, he unleashed a throw back to first base in an attempt to double off Liriano.
The throw itself wasn't terrible, but Gonzalez wasn't able to reach over the sliding Liriano to grab it before it bounced and squirted into foul territory. After it deflected off the netting in front of the Padres' dugout, catcher A.J. Ellis chased it down. He threw to second base in an attempt to catch Liriano, but his throw went a bit wide of second baseman Dee Gordon. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez then picked up the ball in shallow centerfield and uncorked a wild throw "toward" home plate in an attempt to catch Solarte trying to score, but his throw was the furthest off the mark, some 15-20 feet up the first-base line.
Kershaw dove for Ramirez’s errant peg but missed, and Ellis picked up yet another carom, this time off the backstop. He threw toward home plate, where Kershaw had righted himself, but when he moved out of the way of the oncoming Liriano and received the throw in the lefty batter's box, he was too far away to make a tag. You can see the debacle for yourself here:
If you're scoring at home, that's F8, E8 (throw), E2 (throw), E6 (throw) with two unearned runs scoring. It made no difference in the outcome, but it was humiliating just the same. Quoth Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, who has seen a whole lot in his 65 seasons and yet struggled for words:
"High pop fly, shallow center, here comes Puig… Throws to first base and it gets away so the runners are going to advance. The throw by Ellis now goes to centerfield, here comes — are you kidding? (Chuckle)
"That goes all the way to the backstop. Around third and coming to the plate, and Kershaw gets out of the way and the run scores.
"I can't believe that. Holy mackerel. That's embarrassing… You want to look at that again?! Kershaw says, 'I don't wanna mess around with him.' That's the smartest thing of the night."
Multiple Dodgers made enough mental mistakes on the play to fill a month, so singling out Puig isn't entirely fair. But the whole mess started with his throw and came from his ever-present impulse to try to make something happen — something that has a tendency to exacerbate his struggles at the plate.
That brings us to his slump. After batting .319/.406/.552 through the end of July, Puig has hit just .209/.305/.235 in 131 plate appearances since, with three doubles and no homers; his last one came on July 31, a span of 133 PA. His walk and strikeout rates over the last month and change are within a percentage point of his season rates (11.0 and 19.2 percent, respectively), but his power has more or less evaporated. He went homerless in both June and August, albeit separated by a sizzling .351/.425/.688 July that featured 17 extra-base hits but just two homers, the only ones he's hit over his last 333 PA after collecting 11 over the season's first two months. That outage crushed any hopes of him factoring in the MVP race, not that he was much more than a longshot in a crowded field to begin with.
Worse, Puig went through an 0-for-22 spell from Aug. 20-30 and is 5-for-28 since, prompting manager Don Mattingly to move him down from the second spot in the order — fifth, sixth, seventh ("Who do you want the extra at-bat going to? Right now, that's not necessarily Yasiel," said Mattingly at the time). Puig has even been on the bench for a couple of games, as the Dodgers have given looks to rookie Joc Pederson, the team's top prospect.
All of which made Puig's hit on Monday night particularly encouraging. With runners on first and second and nobody out in the fourth inning, he lined a 1-2 fastball from Padres starter Odrisamer Despaigne back up the middle to break a 70-PA drought without an RBI, then hustled to second when centerfielder Cameron Maybin muffed the ball while attempting to pick it up.
What's causing Puig's slump? In late August, amid his 0-fer, Dodger Digest's Daniel Brim pointed to a significant drop in Puig's average flyball distance dating back to a June 7 hip flexor strain caused by an awkward slide while breaking up a double play. He left that game, and at the time the injury was reported as affecting his right hip. When he left another game on June 20, it was after complaining of discomfort in his left hip. That injury was reported in various outlets as being connected to his earlier one, albeit without noting that it was the other side — suggesting that reports of the first injury may have been in error.
Not that it matters, performance-wise. If we update and simplify the data using Bill Petti's Interactive Spray Chart Tool, Puig's average flyball distance through June 7 was 300 feet, whereas since it's just 273.5 feet — a massive difference. Via Brim, Puig has swung more often at pitches both inside and outside the strike zone since the injury, with contact on more of the latter resulting in his drop in batting average on balls in play, from .389 before the injury to .327 since. Elsewhere, ESPN's David Schoenfield showed on Monday that despite similar mixes of pitches and locations, Puig was having markedly more trouble against fastballs since the start of June (.214/.311/.352) than prior (.341/.437/.636).
Fatigue and other dings may be exacerbating Puig's woes. Between the second injury and Aug. 24, he missed just four games, three of them in late July after being hit on the left hand by a pitch. Upon returning, he took over the team's regular centerfield duties, despite having played the position sparingly prior. Within the small sample sizes, Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating don't show much difference regarding his work in center versus that in right, and he has cut down his number of mistakes, but there's no doubt that the new position takes more energy — mental as well as physical — to play. And even given the team's ongoing outfield logjam, he has played through the aforementioned aches and pains while other Dodgers slumped or got hurt.
With Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford both having heated up, Puig has sat with more frequency — three times in the last 14 games, with another limited to a pinch-hitting appearance — in part because Mattingly has felt that his emotions were exacerbating his slump. Via ESPN Los Angleles' Mark Saxon back on Aug. 30:
"The season is long, and it wears you down," Mattingly said. "It's part of learning to regulate yourself here, as far as rest or anything else. We've seen Dee Gordon and how much more consistent his approach is day in and day out now, staying at a certain level. I think Yasiel's really emotional, and it's hard to be really emotional and play 162."
Even as Saxon noted that Puig doesn't study video, the manager waved off the suggestion that his centerfielder's woes were caused by his work ethic or lack of preparation:
"I've seen it both ways. I've seen guys who are consistently here early doing early work all the time. I've also seen some guys that are in the Hall of Fame that got to the park late, got themselves ready to play and go, and do that every day," Mattingly said. "I don't think there's one way to do it."
Whatever's going on, the Dodgers have to hope that Monday's hit is something upon which Puig can build. While Los Angeles has gone 10-5 from Aug. 21 onward — during the worst of his problems — to run its record to 82-62, it has gained just half a game on the second-place Giants in that span, increasing its NL West lead to 3 1/2 games. The Dodgers' chances of winning the division, according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, are 89.3 percent, though their chances of reaching the postseason do round up to 100 percent. If they're to fulfill their potential and justify the $235 million ownership is spending on payroll, they'll need their enigmatic star to rediscover the stroke that made him one of the game’s most dangerous hitters.