GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Dodgers are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and, given the circumstances, that seems like their only play.
Yasiel Puig, a free swinger built like a middle linebacker, will be the team’s leadoff hitter, at least to begin the season, manager Don Mattingly has said. On some levels, this comes across as a ludicrous notion. Puig, who entered camp at 251 pounds, batted .319 last year, but that was aided by a .383 batting average on balls in play, perhaps suggesting some regression. He only stole 11 bases in 432 plate appearances. He’s fast, but inexperienced on the bases.
But if not Puig, who? Eighty-three percent of Carl Crawford’s plate appearances came in the leadoff spot last season, but it’s never been his thing. Crawford has a career .743 OPS batting leadoff and an 800 OPS batting second. Alex Guerrero might one day hit near the top of the order, but that’s out of the question for now. He might not even be in the starting lineup on Opening Day.
The loss of Mark Ellis, who did everything a manager could ask of a No. 2 hitter (aside from getting a lot of hits), has created the conundrum. Puig doesn’t really profile ideally as a No. 2 hitter because he doesn’t take a lot of pitches to give Crawford a chance to try to steal a base, and it almost seems absurd to ask him to give up an at-bat to move a runner over. Forget about bunting.
Puig profiles as a No. 3, 4 or 5 hitter over the long run, of course, but Mattingly had some interesting comments about that. He said Puig hasn’t proven he can be an “RBI guy.” Puig had 42 RBIs in 104 games.
“He’s emotional still,” Mattingly said. “For me, he needs to learn to slow down, calm down up there with men in scoring position. You see in those situations, he gets a little excited. That’s part of learning to be that guy.”
So for now, the Dodgers will allow Puig to develop in the No. 1 spot in the lineup. Not a terrible idea, when you look at it broadly. It worked out OK for Mike Trout.