Happy Yasiel-versary: A look back at Yasiel Puig's first calendar year
On June 3, 2013 — one year ago Tuesday — Yasiel Puig burst on the major league scene. He had defected from Cuba in 2012 and signed a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Dodgers that June. After playing just 63 minor league games at the start of the 2013 season he was promoted to the majors to aid a banged-up Los Angeles club. Puig not only went 2-for-4 with a pair of singles off the Padres' Eric Stults in his first game, he capped his memorable debut by chasing down Kyle Blanks' warning-track fly ball and doubling Chris Denorfia off first base to seal a 2-1 win.
The next day, Puig outdid that initial foray by going 3-for-4 with a double and a pair of homers. In the 364 days since his debut, he has become arguably the majors' most electrifying and controversial player. Though not as powerful as Miguel Cabrera or as refined as Mike Trout, he's put up one jaw-dropping highlight after another at the plate, on the bases and in the field. He's interspersed those with plenty of lowlights, from undisciplined hacks to baserunning gaffes to overthrown cutoff men to tardiness that has tested the patience of manager Don Mattingly and his teamates while leading to benchings. Those mistakes have made him a particularly polarizing player, and that's without accounting for the attention his bat flips draw, even on non-homers. But if 86-year-old Vin Scully — a man who personally witnessed the trailblazing and intense Jackie Robinson and the austere Joe DiMaggio, among thousands of others — can get behind those dramatic flourishes, then the rest of the world can afford to drop its reactionary stodginess.
As traceable by the decreasing volume of Puig's mistakes and by the refinement of his plate discipline, the package of what he brings to the table has elevated him to an elite level. Last year, his potential inclusion on the National League All-Star team after just 38 major league games was a polarizing topic (he lost a Final Vote to the Braves' Freddie Freeman). This year, his exclusion would be unthinkable, and in fact he leads NL outfielders in the voting.
On Monday night against the White Sox, Puig's streak of reaching base in 33 straight games via a hit, walk or hit-by-pitch came to an end; he went 0-for-4 but reached on an error, which doesn't count for the purposes of such streaks. During that 33-game stretch, he hit .398/.490/.719 with nine homers across 152 plate appearances. He's now hitting .340/.430/.606 overall, ranking second in both batting average and on-base percentage and third in slugging percentage; his 188 OPS+ now leads the league.
Puig's overall numbers through his first year in the majors are no less impressive. In 157 games and 669 plate appearances, he has hit .326/.405/.559 with 191 hits, 30 home runs, 62 walks (nine intentional) and 16 steals in 28 attempts. Updating the work of the Los Angeles Register's Pedro Moura, Puig's 169 OPS+ in his first calendar year trails only 2014 Hall of Fame honoree Frank Thomas (177 in 1990-91) and is the equal of Fred Lynn (1974-75).
In that time, Puig has produced 7.6 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version), 1.3 wins more than any other Dodgers position player; even with the benefit of 58 more games played, only Adrian Gonzalez accumulated more hits (215) or homers (34), and only Hanley Ramirez outdid him in any rate stat (.569 slugging percentage). Having spotted the majors roughly one-third of a season (he debuted in game 56), his 7.6 WAR nonetheless ranks 12th in the majors since the start of the 2013 season:
The B-Ref Play Index lacks the ability to summarize a player's WAR for the past calendar year, but via FanGraphs' WAR — which uses Ultimate Zone Rating instead of Defensive Runs Saved as its fielding input — Puig's 7.1 ranks fourth:
Meanwhile, his 169 OPS+ ranks third behind only Cabrera (178) and Trout (174), while his individual rate stats rank third (batting average), seventh (OBP) and fifth (slugging), respectively.
Puig's critics often point out that his mistakes on the basepaths and in the field carry a cost that detracts from his offensive production. They're not incorrect, but the cost does very little to ding his value. Via B-Ref's breakdown, Puig is a combined three runs below average for his baserunning for his brief career. That accounting includes not only his lousy 57-percent rate of success at stealing bases, but also his outs on the basepaths trying to stretch a hit, trying to advance on a hit, being out on a wild pitch/passed ball, or getting doubled off on a line drive or fly ball. His 11 outs on the bases in such fashion were tied for second in the NL last year, while his nine lead the league this year; Carlos Gomez's 17 are the MLB high — and yet in the balance with his successful gambles, the cost is just three runs. FanGraphs' system, which calculates things slightly differently, docks Puig 5.2 runs, which over the past calendar year is the majors' sixth-worst — in the company of slow-moving bruisers Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Prince Fielder and Adam Dunn. Again, though, it still hasn't detracted from his standing among the game's most valuable players by very much.
As for Puig's defense, DRS includes an outfield arm component that tracks both his baserunning kills and the advances against him, such as when he airmails a cutoff man via a futile throw to home plate that allows a batter to take an extra base. He's four runs above average on arm alone, his defense is eight above overall according to DRS. Similarly, he's 4.1 runs above average according to UZR's arm component, and 3.5 above average overall via that system.
FanGraphs now includes some additional fielding data via the proprietary Inside Edge service, which breaks down plays into six buckets based upon the estimated likelihood that the average player makes such plays. In each bucket beyond Impossible (0%), he's toward the upper end of the range:
|Remote (1-10%)||Unlikely (10-40%)||Even (40-60%)||Likely (60-90%)||Routine (90-100%)|
|10.0% (10)||38.1% (21)||85.7% (7)||81.8% (11)||98.7% (234)|
Puig has made most of the routine plays and is far above average on the even-money ones. For some context, Gerardo Parra, the 2013-14 UZR leader (25.0 runs) among rightfielders, has made 16.7 percent of the Remotes, 47.8 percent of the Unlikelies, 75.0 percent of the Evens, 83.0 percent of the Likelies, and 99.3 percent of the Routines. In other words, the 21.5-run gap between him and Puig is primarily because he's made more of the toughest plays — in more playing time, of course.
In all, even after accounting for his occasionally facepalm-worthy mistakes, Puig's accomplishments during his first calendar year place him among the majors' best players, and if it sometimes seems as though he receives a disproportionate share of attention relative to, say, Trout or Cabrera, it helps that he plays in the majors' second-largest market and has the benefit of the great Scully calling most of his top highlights. Most importantly, when Puig is in the starting lineup the Dodgers are 91-56, which works out to a .619 winning percentage and a 100-win pace if projected out over 162 games. He has rewarded the risk the team took by signing an overweight, out-of-shape and incredibly raw 21-year-old defector based on three batting practice sessions and a hunch.
No celebration of Puig's first year would be complete without a few highlights, so here are some personal favorites, starting with the game-ending double play of his debut:
[mlbvideo id="27719161" width="600" height="336" /]
His July 3, 2013 race home from second base on an infield grounder that deflected off the first baseman's glove:
His Oct. 15 triple in the NLCS, which he celebrated thinking it was a home run (courtesy SB Nation):
His March 7, 2014 ill-considered dive for a Trout fly ball and recovery to throw him out at home, thus preventing an inside-the-park homer — quite a sequence for a Cactus League game:
[mlbvideo id="31450411" width="600" height="336" /]
His April 17, 2014 drop of a fly ball and quick recovery to get the forceout at second base, soon followed by an incredible over-the-shoulder catch (both courtesy SB Nation):
[mlbvideo id="32577839" width="600" height="336" /]
[mlbvideo id="33076229" width="600" height="324" /]
[mlbvideo id="33284197" width="600" height="336" /]
Slow it down and loop it and you could put that hypnotic shot in a museum of modern art as a video installation (via Chad Moriyama):
If we've missed your favorite highlight, there's a good chance it's in this MLB.com supercut of his first year:
[mlbvideo id="33394835" width="600" height="336" /]