As anyone who has recently spent nine innings in the stands next to a child or a European tourist has been reminded, baseball is a complicated game. Once in a while, though, a player comes along who is so gifted that he makes it seem simple. The ball is pitched to him, and he hits it and then runs as far as he can as fast as he can. The ball is hit to him, and he gloves it and throws it to a base before a runner reaches it. While others might rely on strategies and adjustments and tricks and habits that have been drilled into them during years in the minor leagues, he does not, because he does not have to. He is a natural.
This is an article from the July 8, 2013 issue
The Dodgers figured Yasiel Puig might be a natural when they signed him a year ago, and they felt he was something special indeed after he hit .517 during his first spring training. Even then, the team didn't quite realize how unusual he was. "You don't give babies steak," Mattingly said, in explaining why the Dodgers had sent Puig to Double A Chattanooga after that torrid spring. Of course, there was also the matter of the three outfielders the club already had on their roster—Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp—who will be paid a total of $53.5 million this year.
When injuries to Crawford and Kemp led the Dodgers to call up Puig three weeks ago, it was immediately confirmed that he was a carnivore straight from the womb. Or, in the words of Mattingly, "This cat's a different animal." In his first game, on June 3, the 22-year-old Cuban outfielder went 2 for 4 and got the final two outs by catching a fly ball on the rightfield warning track, then wheeling and unspooling a clothesline to first base to double off a retreating runner. In his second game he hit two home runs and had five RBIs. In his fourth game he hit a grand slam. In his ninth game he was struck in the face by a 92 mph fastball and somehow came out unscathed. ("I read where it ticked his nose," says a Dodgers official. "He got hit in the face. And that didn't really affect him.") He had as many or more hits through his first 15 career games, 27, than all but two players—Bo Hart (2003) and Irv Waldron (1901) each had 28. Through his first 25 games he was batting .417 with seven home runs, 16 RBIs, two steals and the rapt attention of the entire baseball world.
He had also provided a glimmer of hope to a club that despite its National League--high $223 million payroll is in last place. "We need his energy," says Kemp. "We lack a little bit of intensity at the moment. To get a guy like that coming into your clubhouse, to shake things up, is always good."
Puig is shaking. And yet if there is anything more extraordinary than what Puig has done during his first three weeks in the majors, it is the unprecedented way the Dodgers made him one of their own.
The knock on the door of Paul Fryer's room in the Courtyard Marriott at the Mexico City airport came at 2 a.m. on June 25, 2012, just after the longtime scout had gotten into bed. It was his boss, Logan White, the Dodgers' vice president of amateur scouting. "Come to my room," the wired White said. "I need to talk to you."
Three days earlier, Fryer had been preparing to go on a tour of the Dodgers' minor league system when White's number lit up the screen of his cellphone. White was in Mexico, and he had observed a young, recent arrival from Cuba named Yasiel Puig take batting practice. He wanted Fryer and another Dodgers scout, Mike Brito, to get on the next flight south so that they could confirm what White thought he was seeing. "I'll be straight with you," says Fryer. "Here's the history I had on Puig. Logan said, 'I like this guy. I want to sign him. Come down.' That's the history I had."
No major league official's knowledge of Puig was much deeper. Unlike most previous Cuban exiles—including Yoenis Cespedes, who was in the midst of a rookie year in which he was already proving the Oakland A's four-year, $36 million investment in him to have been a bargain—Puig had played sparingly in international tournaments. And his history in Cuba's pro league, the Serie Nacional, was too short to have produced a body of statistics that could be parsed with any confidence. Puig had never been selected for Cuba's top national side, and his last international appearance had come a year before, for the nation's "B" team at the World Port Tournament in the Netherlands.
That tournament represented the last competitive baseball Puig had played. While his first two years in the Serie Nacional had been promising—in 170 games he batted .316, with 24 home runs and 79 RBIs—he had been suspended for the 2011--12 season. Some have said he was banned because officials knew he planned to leave Cuba, but Peter C. Bjarkman, an American expert on Cuban baseball, has written that it was a punishment for shoplifting a pair of sneakers while in Rotterdam. (Puig declined to comment.)
Now, though, Puig had made it to Mexico, and his new agent arranged for him to take four BP sessions in front of major league scouts in Foro Sol, the home stadium of the Mexico City Red Devils. White had watched the second, and Brito and Fryer arrived in time for the third. At first, Fryer maintained a healthy skepticism. Mexico City sits nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, and he had seen plenty of players who never amounted to anything send ball after ball soaring through the thin air. Fryer had heard that the Rolling Stones had once played Foro Sol, and he wondered where the stage had been.
Soon, though, he was as captivated as White had been the day before. First, there was Puig's physical bearing. He was a large man, 6'3" and 245 pounds, with arms that looked like a running back's legs. "Physically, he's just one big muscle," says White. Yet he moved with fluidity and grace.
Then there was the way he hit. "You hear it a lot—'the ball comes off the bat different,' " says Fryer. "But for him, the ball came off the bat different." During the pair of 40-minute sessions Fryer observed, the first on Saturday and the second on Sunday, Puig rarely missed a pitch. "He was hitting balls a long way, he was hitting balls the other way," Fryer says. "Everything he did was hard contact. For two days he just centered everything—and, obviously, he hadn't played for a while." The three Dodgers scouts kept looking at each other, their eyebrows raised.
They were not alone. They recognized representatives from six or eight other big league teams, including the Cubs and the A's, in Foro Sol, and they knew that there were many more back home who would be interested. After they talked to Puig, with Brito translating, and sensed in him a confidence and charisma to match his physical gifts, their decades of combined scouting experience told them that they had seen enough. "If you were a club that needed statistics and a long track record, you didn't have a chance on him," says White. "No way. Not that I don't use that stuff. But sometimes you don't have it, and you still have to make a decision. It was one of those good old-fashioned scouting things."
Their call? Puig was better than any player they had scouted for the recently completed draft and better than Jorge Soler, the 20-year-old Cuban who had received a nine-year, $30 million contract from the Cubs two weeks earlier. "When I looked at him, I couldn't even think of anyone else to compare him to, and we usually do that as scouts," says Fryer.
They wanted him, but how much would it cost to make sure he became a Dodger? That was the topic that White wanted to discuss when he knocked on Fryer's door in the middle of the night. The conversation, it turned out, was fairly one-sided. White felt that Puig would command more money than Soler and that his ceiling might be higher than that of the 26-year-old, and therefore in his prime, Cespedes. "Here's what we're going to do," White said. "We're going to go seven years, $42 million."
Fryer was stunned. "Some clubs don't even have a $42 million budget for their big league teams," he explains. "Then the ownership says, 'What is the history on him?'
" 'Well, we saw some batting practice stuff, some video of him fielding.' "
"It's not going to fly," Fryer continues. He gathered his thoughts, then he asked White if he was out of his f------ mind.
"If you don't have the stomach for this, let me know," the assistant G.M. said. "We've only seen batting practice. I know this. But we have to get the player. I want to get the player."
"What happened to, I don't know, $33.5?" Fryer asked. "I'm trying to protect you, before you call Stan," referring to team president and part owner Stan Kasten.
"It's too late," White said. "And he's aboard."
"In that case," Fryer said, "what the hell are you waking me up for?"
While G.M. Ned Colletti concedes that "it was a huge, huge gamble on our part," the Dodgers followed White's aggressive lead for two reasons. For starters, time was short. A week later, on July 2, the league's new collective bargaining agreement would kick in, which would limit each club to a $2.9 million annual pool to spend on international talent. While Cubans older than 23 who had played in the Serie Nacional for at least three seasons would be exempt, Puig would not qualify.
Second, the Dodgers viewed the signing as an opportunity to make a statement that they were again major players in Latin America. The Dodgers had once dominated the market, mining it for stars such as Fernando Valenzuela, Pedro Guerrero ("The best hitter God had made in a long time," Bill James once called him) and the Martinez brothers, Ramon and Pedro. But Frank McCourt, the franchise's disaster of an owner from 2004 to '12, had drastically reduced the team's scouting and budget in the region, and the last Latin player of note the Dodgers developed had been Adrian Beltre, who signed back in 1994. Buscones—the semi-officials who connect top Latin teenagers with big league clubs—refused to bring their best players to the Dodgers, because they knew the franchise wouldn't pay them well.
After the Guggenheim Partners bought the team from McCourt for roughly $2 billion in March 2012, Colletti stressed that the team had to replenish its Latin American spending, and Kasten and his fellow owners agreed. The millions they quickly devoted to mature talent such as Crawford, Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez represented a short-term fix. The future would depend on scouting and development, particularly internationally. "If I hadn't come back with this player, and he was playing in Chicago right now and doing this, I'd be looking for a new line of work," White says. "That's how aggressive they wanted me to be."
On June 28, 2012, Puig got the deal White had recommended, and the reaction from the pro baseball community was incredulous. DODGERS SIGN YASIEL PUIG TO PUZZLING DEAL blared a Baseball America headline. "I don't know what's going on in Dodger land," a rival scout told the publication. "They must have seen something."
They were sure that they had. But they also knew that seeing it in batting practice in Mexico City, and seeing it in Dodger Stadium, were very different things.
We have seen this before, an athlete who explodes out of obscurity to set a league—and a major market—aflame. Just as New Yorkers were afflicted with Linsanity, Angelenos are currently in the throes of Puigmania.
There are, however, a few significant differences between the two phenomena. For one, while seemingly every crumb of Lin's personal story was immediately shaken out and digested—Harvard, the D League, the religious devotion, the crashing on a teammate's couch—Dodgers fans, and the Dodgers themselves, don't know much more about Puig than they did a year ago.
They believe him to be intelligent and a good person, but that belief stems more from biographical bullet points and impressions—his parents, Omar and Maritza, are engineers; Yasiel himself helped White get his computer connected to the Internet down in Mexico; he has, as scouts say, "the good face," open and expressive; he has played catch with some of their kids—than anything sustained or proven. Perhaps because of where he grew up, he is guarded about most personal matters. Nobody admits to knowing anything specific about his life in Cuba, or how he escaped and quickly established residence in Mexico.
"We don't know what his life was, what he's been doing or any of that, anything about it," says Mattingly. "I know he comes early, he comes to work—that's all I really know about him," says utilityman Skip Schumaker.
Part of the disconnect can be written off to a language barrier, but Puig is something of an enigma even to Luis Cruz, the Mexican third baseman who inhabits an adjacent locker and lives in the same apartment complex. "He likes to talk," Cruz says, "but he doesn't like to talk about things outside the clubhouse." During a 20-minute press conference on June 19 at Yankee Stadium, Puig answered almost every question (through a translator) by emphasizing his commitment to hard work, and by thanking God for the opportunity to do so.
Only once did he elicit any laughter from the assembled media, which are always eager to inject conviviality into such affairs. He was asked what he had learned, off the field, during his time in the U.S. "To respect everybody, discipline, and the best thing: drive easier," he said, in reference to his arrest in Chattanooga in April for driving 97 mph. Regular Dodgers observers said it was the first time he ever attempted to show a sense of humor in public.
A second differentiation from Jeremy Lin lies in the likelihood that he will sustain his stunning debut. Even when Lin was sending Madison Square Garden into hysterics, it always seemed, to many anyway, that his lightning was the bottled kind—that he did not possess the size, speed or skill to be much more than a perfectly serviceable NBA point guard, which he was with the Rockets this past season when he averaged 13.4 points and 6.1 assists. With Puig, though, the feeling is that we are seeing the first flashes of a careerlong storm.
"With the way he is at the plate, his load is real small, he's real quiet, I don't think that's going away anytime soon," says Schumaker. "His speed is not going away. His arm strength's not going away. He's very special."
He has also displayed a mature plate approach, which has meant that pitchers cannot attack him the way they might other young, aggressive hitters. They can't feed him off-speed junk, under the assumption that he's looking to crush fastballs. His seven home runs have come on five types of pitches: two fastballs, two sliders, a changeup, a curve and a sinker. They can't stay away, working the outer third, as this is what he loves best. Of his first 40 hits, he has pulled just 17, and five of his homers have gone to the opposite field.
And most of those pulled balls have come recently, as he has reacted to pitchers' adjustments to him. Three weeks ago an opposing advance scout suggested that hurlers should start testing him inside—"You've got to go in on him, go in on those hands because big strong guys want to get their arms away from them," the scout said—and while nine of his first 16 hits came on pitches thrown to the plate's outer third, only seven of his next 24 came on such offerings.
"The guy hits .500 in spring training, well over .400 now," says Fryer. "Pretty soon, it is what it is." Of course, Fryer and the Dodgers know that Puig's current level of production is unsustainable, for anyone. The league will continue to familiarize itself with him, searching out weak spots. And he's not flawless. He has struck out 19 times while drawing just four walks—one intentional. "There's also some fine-tuning to do on his baserunning, on some of his routes, on making sure if the cutoff man should be part of a throw—he is," says Colletti. "His rise was relatively quick, but it doesn't mean it's complete."
He does, indeed, have a very long way to go. His major league career might be one half of one percent over, and at the moment we have only an outline of him, as both a player and a person. As the weeks and months progress, the colors will be filled in, and the shadows will be filled in too. But that outline certainly looks to be of something beautiful, and something different.
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Opposing pitchers have struggled to find a weak spot in Puig's swing, as he's taken a variety of pitches to all fields.
7 home runs
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