Dodgers' Yasiel Puig hoping he can prove his critics wrong

HOUSTON -- Yasiel Puig has been a polarizing figure in the game for so long now, he’s no longer concerned, he says, about whether people like him or not.

At times, he struck a defiant tone when discussing what has thus far been a disappointing third season in the major leagues.

"You always have to go through these difficulties, but the people who are next to me trust me and support me," Puig said in Spanish.

The criticism of Puig, of course, has marched steadily onward, though the topic has shifted a bit in 2015. For two seasons, people complained about Puig's flamboyance, the bat flips, the missed cutoff men, his occasional wild base-running mistakes and off-field misconduct. Now, they are pointing to his lack of production in the batter’s box and wondering whether he is doing everything he can to keep himself on the field when he’s away from it.

In a way, the latest criticism cuts deeper for Puig, because it questions his value to his team.

"Probably the success I’ve had in the last two years was because nobody knew me. Could be," he said. "But I will always be successful in this sport, because that is what I have always done since age 11."

The numbers suggest mediocrity even if the feats are sometimes spectacular. Puig’s .754 OPS is 59th in the National League among players with at least 250 plate appearances, trailing players such as Chris Coghlan, Gregor Blanco and Nori Aoki. His right-field defense has had an impact at times, but all of it has been dragged down by an inability to stay on the field. Puig missed 38 games this season with a strained left hamstring -- and the Dodgers managed to go 20-18 -- and now his other leg has been bothering him.

Puig had to leave Tuesday night’s game with tightness in his right hamstring, which a subsequent MRI showed to be mild. The Dodgers are hopeful Puig can play in the next few days, but the recurrence of the injury in the other leg has some people wondering about whether hamstring injuries will be a career-long plague.

Puig’s weight has fluctuated between 220 pounds and 245 pounds in his short career. His physique remains chiseled, the kind of body found more frequently in NFL locker rooms than baseball clubhouses, but some wonder whether Puig’s sheer bulk makes it difficult to play a stop-and-go sport that is contested in variable weather conditions. The temperature was in the 60s when Puig injured his hamstring in Oakland Tuesday night.

"You get guys who are really muscular, big strong guys, sometimes once the leg injuries come, it seems like they hang around with you," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "It’ll be something he’s probably going to have to pay attention to throughout his career, making sure he’s loose and making sure he’s doing his work properly."

Puig’s relationships with his teammates and with Mattingly have become such a constant topic around the Dodgers that some people have begun to openly question whether Andrew Friedman’s front office will at some point look to trade him. That notion was laid temporarily to rest when ESPN’s Jayson Stark reported this month that the Dodgers had put Puig on waivers, then pulled him back when an undisclosed team claimed him. That means Puig will remain a Dodger at least until the offseason.

None of it was lost on Puig, who is increasingly comfortable reading and speaking English.

"When I did what I did, the fans of the city welcomed me very well, and thanks to them I felt very happy in that city," Puig said. "If I finish my career with this team, it would be a great pleasure for me, as it was my first team in the majors. But if not, I can play on any team. I came here to play baseball. That’s up to [the Dodgers]. If I’m put on waivers or traded, I will play anywhere."

Keeping Puig healthy and getting the most of his prolific abilities will be a challenge for the Dodgers in the coming months as they try to hold off the San Francisco Giants and win the National League West. As always, they continue to search for voices who can reach him. At one point in a recent conversation, Puig joked that perhaps he should start showing up late again since he hit better in those days. Puig was late for the Dodgers’ home opener last season, and Mattingly benched him when he showed up later than team rules permit for a game in Miami the previous season.

That led to the follow-up question: How would your manager feel about it if you start showing up late again?

Puig responded by saying he isn’t overly concerned about his manager’s reaction. "He does his thing in the game and I do my job," Puig said. "I just try to focus on myself with the help of Adrian Gonzalez, Mark McGwire and all the people who want to help me."

When the Dodgers recently brought in former Milwaukee Brewers manager Ron Roenicke to be their third-base coach, you had to wonder whether there was more to the move than simply improving the team’s sub-par base running. Roenicke, after all, managed center fielder Carlos Gomez, a player who blossomed under Roenicke from a disappointing five-tools player into a two-time All-Star. Roenicke said he agrees there are comparisons to be made between Gomez and Puig.

"You’re talking about two of the top tools players in baseball. I saw Carlos early in his career when he made mistakes all the time. I saw him evolve into the two-year All-Star. Does he still make mistakes? Yes, but he creates so much other stuff on the plus side that you can win a lot of ballgames with him," Roenicke said.

The Dodgers would still say the same for Puig, but the production certainly hasn’t trended the way they would like. From his arrival in June of 2013 through the 2014 All-Star break, Puig had an OPS of .920. Since then, it is .766. What’s more, there are some baseball people who suggest Puig isn’t likely to rebound from this downward trend in his production.

"He’s easy to pitch to if you can pitch," said one rival National League scout who has evaluated Puig extensively. "He’s got skills and what he is in the clubhouse is for others to talk about, but I can tell you that if you pound him in, he chases breaking balls away.

"My thought is he’s making all this money, he’s got the world by the you-know-whats. Is he willing to put the time in to get better? His upside is good, not great."

But there is a counter-argument for every critique leveled against Puig. For one thing, his strikeout percentage has actually decreased since the 2014 All-Star break, from 21.2 percent to 20.2 percent. For another, his walk rate has stayed exactly the same at 9.4 percent. He is actually missing fewer pitches, from 31.9 percent to 27.8 percent.

Where there is talent this profound, there remains profound hope.

"I’m sure I can get out of this bad time in this final part and in the postseason, where it will be even more important," Puig said.