With apologies to a deep rookie class in the National League, this season's race is shaping up as Puig versus Fernandez. Here are the National Rookie Wins Above Replacement (WAR) leaders entering Monday's action:
Nolan Arenado: 3.5
Julio Teheran: 3.2
Juan Lagares: 2.8
Shelby Miller: 2.7
Hyun-Jin Ryu: 2.6
Tony Cingrani: 2.4
A.J. Pollock: 2.0
Braves fans will certainly demand support for Teheran, and Cardinals fans for Miller, but, right now, Fernandez has the edge in WAR and peripheral stats. As good as those two have been, they have to rank behind Fernandez. Rockies third baseman Arenado fares well in WAR thanks to some outstanding defensive metrics, but he's like the annoying third wheel who hangs around too long after dinner.
So, it's really about Puig and Fernandez, and they faced each other on Monday night in Miami. Fernandez had faced the Dodgers earlier this season, but that came in May before Puig's call-up, so it was the first time the two Cuban defectors would do battle.
First inning: No outs, runner on first
After Carl Crawford walked on four pitches, Puig stepped in. Fernandez didn't fool around: His first pitch was a high, 97 mph fastball that Puig swung late on. A 99 mph fastball was outside, and then Puig fouled off a 98 mph four-seamer. Fernandez has nasty breaking pitches, but it's his confidence in that explosive heater that allows him to set up his curveball, slider and occasional changeup. With two strikes, Puig did a good job to foul off a curve and then popped up another low curve to shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria in foul territory.
Entering the game, Puig's .358 season average was still boosted by a .447 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). The BABIP will eventually come down, but he's held pretty steady on the batting average. One reason is he's looking like a quick learner at the plate. Here, let's break down his plate appearances into four periods.
Period 1: June 3-June 22 (74 PAs): 2 unintentional walks, 16 strikeouts, 37 percent chase rate, 56 percent swing rate, 27 percent miss rate. This was the Puig who caught baseball by storm, hitting .435 with six home runs.
Period 2: June 23-July 9 (71 PAs): 4 unintentional walks, 16 strikeouts, 39 percent chase rate, 55 percent swing rate, 42 percent miss rate. Puig hit .379 in this stretch, even though he was swinging at and missing more pitches.
Period 3: July 10-July 31 (67 PAs): 4 unintentional walks, 19 strikeouts, 35 percent chase rate, 51 percent swing rate, 43 percent miss rate. Puig slowed down after the All-Star break and hit .267 in this period as his BABIP fell to a more reasonable .359.
Period 4: Aug. 1-Aug. 19 (77 PAs): 7 unintentional walks, 17 strikeouts, 33 percent chase rate, 51 percent swing rate, 31 percent miss rate. Puig has hit .313 in August with just one home run, but he has six doubles and a vastly improved strikeout-to-walk ratio (he's also drawn four intentional walks). He's gone from an 8-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio to 2.4-to-1. Small sample size, of course, and some of the walk rate is no doubt the result of pitchers not going after him, but that's also a sign of respect. The important thing is Puig is showing the ability to lay off the pitches outside the strike zone that many believed could lead to a Jeff Francoeur-esque downfall.
Third inning: One out, bases empty
Fernandez certainly wasn't pitching around Puig, however. After starting him with hard stuff in the first inning, Fernandez threw a curve that Puig took low for a ball, a 96 mph fastball up out of the zone and then another curve that Puig grounded routinely to shortstop. A routine grounder that beat Puig by a step. Anyway, you can view the 2-0 curveball two ways: Fernandez's confidence to throw it for a strike, or not wanting to challenge Puig with a fastball when down in the count. Either way, it was a good pitch, and you're going to win a lot of games if you can get ground balls on 2-0 curveballs.
Fifth inning: Runners at the corners, one out
Puig stepped in, top buttons on jersey undone, in a key moment: The Dodgers had just scored on Crawford's bases-loaded force play to cut Miami's lead to 2-1. The first pitch was a 97 mph fastball on the outside corner that Puig swung through. The 0-1 fastball looked just off the outside corner, but plate umpire John Hirschbeck called it a strike (pitch data says it was a ball). Catcher Jeff Mathis then set up outside on the 0-2 pitch; Fernandez missed the target badly but Puig missed a 97 mph four-seamer up at his shoulder.
As Puig walked away, Hirschbeck yanked off his mask, pointed out Puig and shouted at him. I didn't see Puig say anything on the third pitch (replays had a good angle of him walking away), although maybe he said something on the strike-two call. Either way, it looked to me like another case of a veteran ump going out of his way to put a young player in his place. Hirschbeck is a respected veteran umpire, but I didn't see reason for him to show Puig up. Plus, he missed the call; Puig understandably might have complained/groaned/dropped a four-letter word.
When Puig got to the dugout, he went a little nuts, yelling and screaming, with Juan Uribe and Hanley Ramirez finally calming him down. Puig's energy is one thing that makes him so exciting, but even if Hirschbeck was wrong, Puig is going to have to better control his temper.
That was it for Fernandez/Puig. The Marlins rookie left after six innings and two runs (one unearned) and got the win as the Marlins pushed across the go-ahead run in the sixth and eventually won 6-2 to give the Dodgers their first two-game losing streak since June 20-21.
Puig had two more at-bats, striking out in the seventh and flying out to center in the ninth.
The rookie of the year race will be interesting down the stretch. Will Puig's attention overshadow Fernandez's historic season? (The last pitcher in his age-20 season to finish with 5.0 WAR or higher was Dwight Gooden in 1985.) Presumably, Fernandez will be shut down around 165 innings (he's at 145⅔), so he might only have three or four starts remaining -- which could also allow Teheran, Miller and Ryu to make a stronger case, since they'll keep pitching through September with their teams likely heading to the postseason.
For one game, however, Fernandez showed once again why he's not only the best rookie pitcher in 2013, but one of the most dominant pitchers of the season regardless of experience.
Rookie of the year? I think it's still open. If I had to vote today, I'd go Fernandez. Let's check back in a few weeks.