Dropped one spot before the pitcher because of what manager Dave Roberts called an inconsistent spring, Puig blasted his first home run of the young season when he waited out a changeup from the San Diego Padres’ Trevor Cahill and tucked it just inside the left-field foul pole.
It was one of two hits for Puig in the Dodgers’ 3-1 victory over the Padres, as the team's lightning rod for attention collected a sixth-inning single as well.
“I was focusing on bettering my pitch recognition every day, working with [hitting coach] Turner Ward every day just to try to better my swing,” Puig said through a team interpreter.
With Ward, Puig is working on hitting the ball in the air more, a move that Roberts hopes will take advantage of the slugger’s strength.
“I think the game today, guys are stronger and there is [a pitcher’s] velocity,” Roberts said. “You put the ball on the ground, we have a lot of data to gather up ground balls [on defense]. With Yasiel, he’s so strong, he can hit the ball out of the ballpark anywhere. And yeah, if he can elevate the ball pretty much anywhere, he has a chance.”
Never one to shy away from a dangerous question when a cliché will do, Puig joked about his motivation for the season. “What I think about is putting the ball in the air or else I’m going to have no money in my pocket,” said Puig, who will be doing just fine financially since he is actually signed through 2018.
For all of his flashy play, Puig said he recognizes the importance of team play. There are subtleties in it, though, like accepting a role of batting eighth even if you envision yourself as a hitter who belongs in a more high-profile spot.
“I’m not used to it, but that was the position I was given and I’m going to ask God to keep me in the lineup,” Puig said. “I will try to do my job.”
Part of that job is understanding that others are vying for high-profile roles too.
“My teammates are doing a great job,” Puig said. “They are all in the right [lineup] position and they have all been doing their job. They are in the position that is right for them. Now it’s my turn.”
Roberts was asked if Puig looks motivated to shake his role in the eight hole. “I don’t know. I think that is a question for Yasiel,” Roberts said. “I just know the at-bat quality he’s giving us, and just knowing that there is a lot to be said for a lineup that is stressing a pitcher, one through eight, and Yasiel does that.”
Puig’s career best for home runs in a season is 19, which he reached in just 104 games during his dynamic rookie season of 2013. He hit 16 home runs in 148 games in 2014. He went deep 11 times in each of the past two seasons.
If the coaching staff’s plan is successful, and Puig stays motivated, a season of at least 20 home runs would seem realistic. It could move him into a middle-of-the-order role as the season progresses, or if he doesn’t go anywhere, he could end up as one of the more feared No. 8 hitters in baseball.
At first blush, anyway, Roberts thinks Puig could be up for the challenge.
“Yeah, I’m glad that they are saying that,” Puig said when told that Roberts is pleased with his work ethic so far. “I am focused on my work. I’m focused on my preparation. And I’m going to continue doing my job.”