Yasiel Puig is not what you want him to be (Derek Jeter?), but he might not be what you think he is (punk? show-off?). And just when pitchers think they've figured him out, he changes again. He is ...
YASIEL PUIG is Muhammad Ali. He is Allen Iverson. He is Joe Namath, Johnny Manziel and Charles Barkley; he is Mark Cuban and Kanye West too. "He's the Beatles," observed one cameraman at Dodgers camp in Glendale, Ariz., where a murmuring, roped-in crowd became frenzied whenever the 23-year-old Puig—participating in his second spring training, his first as a star—approached. Puig is, in essence, anyone who has ever come along possessing not just astounding talent but also the temerity (whether natural, calculated or some combination of both) to express that talent in new and unconventional ways, thereby tweaking an establishment that is wary of the new and the unconventional. He is a disrupter.
Nearly 20 years ago Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen introduced the theory of disruptive innovation, which explains the process by which new technologies (the steam engine, the telephone, Wikipedia) arrive on the market, are resisted by those invested in their predecessors (the sail, the telegraph, Britannica) and eventually overtake them. "Disruptive technologies," Christensen wrote with his coauthor, Joseph L. Bower, "introduce a very different package of attributes from the one mainstream customers historically value."
The sporting world historically values stars like Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter, who embody its norms more perfectly than almost everybody else. These athletes play their games with impeccable fundamental soundness, they exhibit the right amount of humility. They are exciting, but they are also anodyne.
March 24, 2014
Throughout Puig's rookie season with the Dodgers, which began when the club called him up from Double A early last June, no one ever accused him of being much like Derek Jeter. Rarely did Puig do what was considered to be the right thing, or the expected thing. He would field a ball in rightfield and, instead of dutifully relaying to the cutoff man, would devote all the force that his 6'3", 245-pound frame could muster into long and risky throws, attempting to gun down base runners by himself. He would slap a grounder up the middle, an easy single, and yet he would round first and head for second without remorse. If he made it, he would yell and pound his chest and point to everyone he has ever known. If not? Oh, well.
By season's end Puig had batted .319, with 19 home runs, 11 steals and the ninth-best OPS (.925) of any rookie who has played in more than 100 games over the past 30 years (a pool of 508 players). The Dodgers were 23--32 on the morning he was called up and went 69--38 thereafter, rising from last place in the NL West to a spot in the NLCS. And yet the popular narrative about Puig betrayed the baseball establishment's wariness of him. It focused on the times his long throws went astray or he ran a single into an out; the times he appeared disrespectful toward his opponents or chased after balls with apathy. In some quarters he even received blame for the Dodgers' Game 6, NLCS-ending loss to the Cardinals, as if a few minor fielding miscues—he unleashed two imprecise throws and let a liner skip by him—outweighed the fact that Clayton Kershaw allowed more earned runs (seven) than he had in any game all season, and that the Dodgers were shut out that evening.
Puig hears those critics, and he has a message for them: He is not about to change. Not fundamentally, anyway. "I know I put the best of myself out on the field, and I can't worry about what people are thinking," he says. "I came here to play baseball, not to look at what people are thinking."
DISRUPTERS TEND to share certain qualities, such as an abiding belief in themselves. In other ways each of them is unique and therefore fascinating. One such difference with Puig: Personally, he is as enigmatic as any prominent athlete who has ever played on American soil—and as difficult to contextualize. That he grew up in Cuba means that most of those who watch or cover baseball had never heard his name until the Dodgers signed him to a seven-year, $42 million contract in June 2012, when he was already a man of 21. It also means that we have trouble imagining even the outlines of his youth. His L.A. teammates all insist that they like him, that he is as energetic in the clubhouse as he is on the field. But even those closest to Puig, such as Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, admit they don't really know him. "I can't say I know everything about his family or what he's thinking," says his manager, Don Mattingly.
This, Puig says, is how he likes it. "Why do people have to know what I did as a kid?" he asks. (Because you are a star, the populace would say, and that inspires interest.) "I'm a baseball star, not in other things. People should know what I do in baseball, not what I did as a kid."
Puig's philosophy only leads to speculation over why he has that philosophy. One theory suggests that his privacy stems from his growing up in a country where the walls have cochleas, where only bad things result from revealing one's inner self. We are also left to guess how it is that Puig is so much the opposite—so unbridled—on the field. The leading theory is that in Cuba, players are encouraged to entertain a downtrodden people. Pitcher Jose Contreras, who escaped Cuba in 2002 and who now, at 42 and after 11 major league seasons, is trying to latch on with the Rangers, suggests that such behavior—across the Caribbean—has more to do with a relative dearth of older players in those leagues. "There's all these young kids playing all the time," he says, "and that's their mentality."
The public's hunger to know someone who wants large portions of his life to remain unknown has led to outsized reactions when Puig has slipped up off the field: He showed up late for a game in Miami last August and twice last year was arrested for speeding. (Charges were dropped in both instances; he's since given up driving and has enlisted a cousin to chauffeur him.) To be fair, he was going rather fast—110 miles per hour in a 70 zone in Florida in December—and the Dodgers have allowed none of these minor malfeasances to pass by without a conversation. "It was not an easy one for him," GM Ned Colletti says of their phone call after December's speeding ticket.
Generally, though, the Dodgers have ignored the instinct to crack down on their young star, pursuing instead a strategy of course correction, support and understanding. "Imagine a young player who grew up in Los Angeles and went to UCLA; he's drafted in June 2012—when [Puig] was signed—and in June '13 he's the talk of the big leagues. That takes adjustment," says Colletti. "It would take a lot for that young person to get his feet on the ground, figure things out, stay focused on the task. [Puig] was able to do it coming from where he came from. I thought it was phenomenal.... Was it perfect? No."
The Dodgers have also resisted the baseball community's calls to force Puig into a less exuberant, more conventional mold on the field. Mattingly would like to see his young charge become a better base stealer (he was caught on eight of his 19 attempts last year) and refine his penchant for risky plays. The club understands why Puig is so criticized (Colletti: "He's a guy who the spotlight is on a lot; when it goes bad for him, it goes worse than it would for somebody else") and also that a heavy hand would sap him of his essence and negatively impact the team's performance. "I can't take it out of him," Colletti says of Puig's unique sensibility. "I don't want to take it out of him."
"We'll take the times he gets thrown out or overthrows the cutoff man," adds Gonzalez, "because the times he doesn't get thrown out, it changes the game, and when he throws someone out, we win a game; we get rolling because of it."
Puig's style is not only how he chooses to express himself—it is also inseparable from who he is. "Everything is different here," he says of the U.S. "Baseball is different; everything is different. So I'm going to do my job like I always have, play like I always have. And I hope people start to understand me, because this is how I play."
That this has worked so well on the field so far is the central reason why the Dodgers have accepted Puig as he is. There is, however, a long way to go.
ONE RISK OF BEING a disrupter is that you must repeat your successes quickly, even improve on them, because the establishment is eager to turn you into a cautionary tale: This is what happens when you mess with the standard. Muhammad Ali is the sportsman of the 20th century because he rode his once polarizing politics and taunting ring demeanor to three stints as the world heavyweight champion. Allen Iverson's formerly demeaned streetball style and aversion to practice are fondly remembered because of his four scoring titles and his MVP award. Had Ali lost to Sonny Liston, had Iverson flopped, they would have been their sports' answer to Pets.com.
Puig insists that he is committed to improving his game while staying true to himself. "I'm going to keep playing like this, and even better than last year," he says. "Play aggressive because that's what matters to me—to play well and play aggressive. I don't do it so my opponents get bothered. I do it because that's my style of play."
Baseball has seen its share of sophomore slumps, in which second-year players struggle in part due to expectations but mostly because opponents have become familiar with their weaknesses. The best players, says Mattingly, usually don't slump, not in an extended fashion: "Guys that are great for a long time, they continue to make adjustments." He would know. As a 23-year-old second-year Yankee in 1984, Mattingly boosted his batting average to an AL-leading .343, from .283. Great players, he says, "are always making adjustments, day to day, at bat to at bat, season to season." That word, adjust, is heard often around Dodgers camp when the subject is Puig's second year—26 times over two days of interviews for this story alone.
There are three reasons why Puig is poised not just to repeat the successes of his debut season but also to better them. One is the extent of his athletic ability. "He has a freak skill set, off the charts," says one rival GM. The second reason is that while popular perception (buoyed by his personal guardedness) holds that Puig is mostly a physical savant, those closest to him know there's more to it. "He listens to [hitting coach] Mark McGwire; he listens to the guys," says Gonzalez. "When we say, 'Hey, pay attention,' he'll be quiet. He's not stubborn—he gets portrayed that way, but he's not. He's a hard worker, a student of the game; he asks a lot of questions and goes to people for help."
"He picks things up really quickly, which is rare for a 23-year-old," says McGwire, who unsuccessfully pushed for Puig to make the club out of camp last season. "He has already refined his swing, in one year. He had a lot of movement last year in his lower half—he wasn't really using his legs. Now he understands that the strength of any hitter starts from the lower half, the base. His frame of mind at the plate is leaps and bounds from where he was last year. I'd rather work with somebody that has his aggression and talent—try to refine him and pull the reins back—than try to light a fire under somebody's rear end."
The third reason is that Puig, during the 4½ months that make up his big league career, has already demonstrated an ability to adjust to data-laden opponents as they adjust to him. The idea that opponents know much more about a ballplayer in year two than in year one is something of an anachronism, says Mattingly: "Nowadays there's so much video that it doesn't take long for teams to see what you chase, what you hit." As Gonzalez points out, Puig "had an up-and-down season last year. He didn't just kill it."
In fact, Puig really had several microseasons in 2013. First, opposing pitchers didn't know what to do with him. Then they realized he had a tendency to chase sliders thrown way outside the zone. After he started laying off those, they began throwing fastballs in on his hands. By the playoffs it seemed as if Puig could handle those too. His monthly batting averages reflect, in a general way, a back-and-forth that Mattingly describes as "cat and mouse, all the time." Puig hit .436 in June, .287 in July, .320 in August, .214 in September and then .333 in October. (While critics remember him going 5 for 22 in six games against the Cardinals in the NLCS, they forget his 8-for-17 tear in four games against the Braves in the Division Series.) This is what adjustment looks like.
THE BUSINESS concept of disruptive innovation cannot be applied perfectly to sports. For one thing, athletes are far more limited than manufacturers in the ways in which they can innovate. Whereas one forward-thinking company might come along with a digital camera, eventually rendering physical film obsolete, a baseball player cannot start using a markedly different type of bat. Disrupters in sports also tend to do things that are less easily replicable than new technology, because of the extraordinary nature of their talents.
Perhaps Yasiel Puig will pave the way for a broader acceptance, in our most hidebound of sports, of players who share his brash and aggressive style. But that will be secondary. What matters most for disrupters, in both business and in sports, is the bottom line.
"I don't think his numbers are great yet," says Mattingly. "I think they're O.K. But I think he's got maybe the most talent that I've seen."
Puig's story is already a remarkable one. He is something that people have never seen before; already he has, through the force of his gifts and his will, made himself simultaneously loved and loathed. What he does next will determine whether he will be remembered as an authentic and sustainable new model, or just momentarily disruptive.
"I can't take it out of him," Colletti says of Puig's unique sensibility.
"I don't want to take it out of him."
30 Home runs Puig projects to have hit in 2013 if he'd played a full season, to go with 17 stolen bases and a .925 OPS.
1 Players in baseball history who have reached those levels as rookies (Mike Trout).
$58.8M What the Dodgers will pay their primary OFs this season: Matt Kemp ($21M), Carl Crawford ($20.3M), Andre Ethier ($15.5M) and Puig ($2M) will be shoehorned into three lineup spots.
3 Major league teams that had total payrolls under $60 million last season: Houston, Miami and Tampa Bay.