Yasiel Puig made headlines this week, albeit for the wrong reasons. After homering against the Indians in Cleveland on Tuesday night, the Dodgers' rightfielder responded to hecklers with a double middle-finger salute, an act that earned him a fine and a one-game suspension from MLB. The penalty is an overreaction, but the incident only further underscores how long it's been since Puig thrilled crowds with his talent instead of trying everyone's patience.
Facing Cleveland's Trevor Bauer with a man on second in the second inning, the 26-year-old Puig hit his 10th home run of the year in what became a 7-5 Los Angeles victory. As he later explained, "about four" fans heckled him both while he was on deck and after he circled the bases. While trotting back to the dugout, he gave those fans the finger. You might want to take the plastic cover off your fainting couch before viewing this:
According to the Los Angeles Times' Andy McCulloch, Puig's teammates “found this whole thing hilarious." Manager Dave Roberts did not. After discussing the matter privately with Puig on Wednesday, he said, “It was just something that he wishes didn’t happen. It was a reaction of emotion on his part and bad judgment." A contrite Puig conceded, "I stooped to their level.”
Puig is hardly the first player to get caught flipping the bird. In fact, the earliest known instance of the gesture being captured on film was apparently when future Hall of Famer Old Hoss Radbourn had a little fun while the 1886 Boston Beaneaters were being photographed. As I noted last year after Tigers centerfielder Tyler Collins gave booing fans the finger following his misplay of a fly ball, players such as Ted Williams, Garry Templeton, Jack McDowell and Albert Belle have been caught doing something similar, while closers Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon offered fans other similarly rude gestures.
One that I failed to include was when future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven gave Twins fans a farewell salute on May 31, 1976, the day before he was traded to the Rangers. Blyleven had been feuding over a contract extension with Minnesota owner Calvin Griffith, and a trade to Texas had been in the works; with news of the deal’s imminence, fans heckled the pitcher with some singing, "Goodbye Bert, we're glad to see you go." When Blyleven walked off the Metropolitan Stadium mound in the top of the ninth, on the short end of a 3-2 score, he responded to the jeers with his salute. That wasn't even the only time he did such a thing. Pitching for the Indians in Baltimore on April 28, 1985, he gave Orioles fans a little something to remember him by as he exited. Maybe that's why it took him 14 years of eligibility before getting into the Hall of Fame.
MLB and its teams have generally responded to such actions with slaps on the wrist; Belle, McDowell and Templeton all drew $5,000 fines, though the latter was also suspended by the team for three weeks as he entered a rehab program for substance abuse. Papelbon was suspended for a week, but that's because he made contact with umpire Joe West, who himself grabbed the pitcher by the jersey and pushed him. Collins, an obscure journeyman, wasn't suspended, but Puig, with his superstar potential but polarizing nature, was, which should raise some eyebrows. The length of the suspension itself is relatively innocuous; he has already appealed, and will likely drop the appeal when Roberts next schedules him for an off day. It’s losing the day's pay (roughly $46,000, given that he's making $8.2 million this year) that's the real penalty.
Reports of Puig’s chronic tardiness and rubbing his teammates and manager the wrong way had more or less ground to a halt prior to the Cleveland incident. Alas, so have the towering home runs, majestic bat flips, dazzling dives and laser-like throws. He's no longer a human highlight film. As I said on MLB Network's MLB Nowon Wednesday, I like the version of YaiselPuig that was hitting .320, showing up late for practice and airmailing the cutoff man much more than the current model. Even with the homer, he's batting .244/.315/.421 for a 95 OPS+, meaning that his productivity relative to the league has declined every season since his sizzling 2013 debut. Here's what his OPS+ looks like year-by-year:
2013: 159 OPS+
Injuries and a detour to Triple A Oklahoma City last August limited him to 183 games in 2015 and '16 combined. Squeezed off the 25-man roster by the trade deadline acquisition of Josh Reddick last season, Puig saw his role reduced to a platoon one against lefties once he returned from the minors. Oddly, this year he's just 9-for-55 with a .466 OPS against southpaws, compared to .825 (.271/.332/.494) with all 10 of his homers against righties. Injuries to Andre Ethier, Andrew Toles, Franklin Gutierrez and Joc Pederson have prevented him from becoming buried on the bench; in fact, his 248 plate appearances ranks second on the team behind Corey Seager's 281.
Likely, those injuries to his teammates and his own tepid performance are factors in keeping him in Dodger blue, at least for the moment. Toles is out for the year due to a torn ACL; Ethier has yet to begin baseball activities due to a herniated disc and isn’t expected back until after the All-Star break, if at all; and Gutierrez has battled hamstring and hip injuries, limiting him to just 52 plate appearances thus far. Given that Puig has at least been around average offensively and an asset defensively (+6 Defensive Runs Saved), he’ll at least serve as a placeholder until the trade deadline. Given his awesome potential and the fact that next year's $9.2 million salary is still a drop in the bucket to L.A., it seems unlikely he'll be traded while his value is suppressed.
Still, Puig and the Dodgers would probably both benefit from a parting of ways. A clean slate in a new town as well as a fresh set of voices might be just the ticket for the enigmatic Cuban comet. Who wouldn’t rather see him flipping bats than flipping birds?