- Loved by some and loathed by others, Yasiel Puig is playing some of the best baseball of his career in the 2017 playoffs. The Dodgers are loving the results.
Justin Turner’s walk-off three-run home run made him the hero of the Dodgers' Sunday night's NLCS Game 2 victory over the Cubs, but once again, Yasiel Puig played a crucial role in the win. And this time, there was no accompanying social media hoopla. The 26-year-old rightfielder drew three walks and kindled the decisive rally, continuing a remarkable postseason run that has put the spotlight on him for all of the right reasons.
Batting seventh in the Dodgers' lineup, Puig drew three walks to continue the string of tenacious plate appearances that has defined his October thus far. With two outs in the second inning, and again with two outs in the fourth, he worked seven-pitch walks against Cubs starter Jon Lester. Working on three days of rest following his 3 2/3-inning relief stint in Game 4 of the Division Series, the 32-year-old lefty didn't have a whole lot to spare in the way of extra pitches, but Puig’s two plate appearances helped run Lester’s inning totals to 28 and 22 pitches, respectively. Shortstop Charlie Culberson, filling in for the injured Corey Seager, lined out to end the second, and Puig was caught stealing to end the fourth, but his role in prolonging those innings contributed to Lester's departure with two outs in the fifth, after throwing 103 pitches and walking five while striking out only two.
Lester's early exit meant exposing the Cubs' shaky bullpen—which had been lit for a 7.08 ERA in the postseason to that point—to the relentless Dodgers offense, which had similarly worn down an already-spent Diamondbacks staff in the Division Series. This time, Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop and Brian Duensing got the Cubs to the ninth without further damage, with Edwards striking out Puig for just the second time of the postseason, albeit after an eight-pitch battle that ended both the sixth inning and the 26-year-old righty's night. Puig didn't bat again until the ninth, when he led off with a four-pitch walk against Duensing, then took second on Culberson's sacrifice bunt. His speed made him a threat to score on an outfield single, but it wasn't needed, as Turner’s three-run homer off John Lackey sent the Dodgers to a 4–1 win and a two-games-to-none series lead.
Including his Division Series performance, Puig is hitting .438/.571/.875 in 21 postseason plate appearances. He’s reached base 12 times (the most of any NL postseason participant), been on base at least twice in all five Dodger games, and has driven in two runs in three of them. What's more, he's seen more pitches per plate appearance (5.38) than any postseason participant with at least 10 PA, and despite those deep encounters has whiffed just twice. Manager Dave Roberts has complimented his focus again and again, and both he and his teammates have praised the energy he's brought to the team with the antics that have polarized the rest of the baseball world—namely the bat-flipping and the tongue-wagging.
There remains a chasm when it comes to appreciating and understanding the flourishes that Puig provides, of course, one that is both cultural and generational. Some believe Puig and others who flip bats do so to embarrass the opposition and to disrespect the game. Such incidents have set off countless beanballs and brawls. But it's worth remembering that “the right way to play the game” is relative, rooted in the culture in which one learned. The Cuban-born Puig endured a harrowing journey to the US after multiple defection efforts. As fellow Cuban Brayan Pena told USA Today’s Ted Berg last year, after defecting, “You have the opportunity to be free. You have the opportunity to express yourself with no hesitation and with nobody trying to tell you what to do or trying to tell you what to say.”
As Puig wrote on MLB.com earlier this year:
"There is a passion I have and we have as Latinos because we love to have fun, we love to show our joy on the field, and I think sometimes that confuses people. Sometimes, other teams get upset with our bat flips or expressions, but that's how we show our joy. The pitcher can strike you out four times in a game so we like to show our joy when we hit that one home run. Baseball is fun. It's exciting. I enjoy it. It's a game."
Lately, Puig hasn’t just been bat-flipping his home runs, he’s flipped for hits that haven’t left the yard, even singles. “Puig is now a home run shy of pimping for the cycle in this series,” wrote the Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin after Game 2 of the Division Series, viewing Puig’s “borderline-obscene tongue-wag” as of a piece with his other in-game celebrations.
Along with the cannon-like throws, dazzling dives and towering home runs, Puig’s bat flips quickly became his signature when he burst upon the major league scene in mid-2013, showing himself as the most entertaining player the Dodgers had seen since Fernando Valenzuela keyed “Fernandomania” in 1981. While the hijinks polarized opponents and fans from the start, if 80-something-year-old Vin Scully—who personally witnessed the trailblazing, intense Jackie Robinson and the austere Joe DiMaggio, among thousands of other ballplayers—could get behind them, and him, who was anyone else to argue?
The newly-minted superstar Puig was hardly the perfect ballplayer, however. Prone to baserunning mistakes and occasional defensive gaffes, he rubbed some teammates and manager Don Mattingly the wrong way all too often, particularly with his chronic tardiness. His play declined due in part to injuries, and his downfall turned into a morality play. After hitting .319.391/.534 with 19 homers and 4.9 WAR in 2013, and then earning All-Star honors with a.296/.382/.480 season with 16 homers and 5.4 WAR the following year, he battled hamstring woes that limited him to 79 games, 11 homers and 1.1 WAR in 2015. Further sluggish play led to him being sent to Triple A in August 2016 after the Dodgers couldn't find a deadline deal to their liking at the July 31st trade deadline. When he returned late in the season, his role had been reduced to a platoon one against lefties. His annual OPS+ told the story: a sizzling 159 in 2013, then 145 in '14, and 110 and 98 in the two ensuing seasons.
With mounting criticism and less to celebrate, particularly with the Dodgers failing to push further into the postseason, Puig shelved the bat flips in early 2015 but remained a magnet for controversy. One report claimed that Clayton Kershaw told the Dodgers brass to trade him after the 2015 season, and it was widely rumored that Puig’s continued presence played roles in both the free agent defection of Zack Greinke to the Diamondbacks and the team's mutual parting of the ways with Mattingly.
While Puig's overall production this past season (.263/.346/.487 for a 118 OPS+) wasn't back to his 2013–14 levels, he did set career highs with 28 homers, 15 steals and 18 Defensive Runs Saved en route to a solid 3.7 WAR, and improved significantly after a sluggish start (.229/.299/.408 through May), batting .281/.371/.531 with 19 homers from June 1 onward. A lineup staple once again, he led the Dodgers in games played (152) and ranked second in plate appearances (570). Though he struggled mightily against lefties for the first time (.183/.317/.275 with two homers in 145 PA), his overall plate discipline took a major step forward. He swung at a career low 29.4% of pitches outside the strike zone (his career mark is 31.8%), saw 3.76 pitches per plate appearance (second only to his abbreviated 2015 average of 3.90) and set career bests in both strikeout and walk rates (11.2% and 17.5%), respectively.
Aside from a one-game suspension (later rescinded) for a double middle-finger salute to heckling Cleveland fans and a late-September benching for a game-ending caught stealing and then a late arrival for batting practice, Puig has largely avoided the negative headlines this year. He's emerged as a better teammate and a more coachable player. As Roberts told Bleacher Report's Scott Miller, "Even from last year when we recalled him, he's been a different person. I think his care for his teammates and doing the right things is a priority now. And it's good to see him getting rewarded with a tremendous season."
As he's shown so far in the playoffs, even when he's not taking center stage and consuming a great volume of social media oxygen, Puig is helping the Dodgers win. He’s risen to the occasion at a time when the Dodgers need him the most, and with his team just two victories away from their first trip to the World Series in 29 years, his timing simply couldn't be better.