The Search for Answers: Yasiel Puig

The Dodgers might finally get to find out if Yasiel Puig has a middle gear. In his rookie season, everything Puig did was at the poles of a baseball behavioral chart, ranging from spectacular feats of hitting and throwing to being benched for a lack of hustle making mistakes that would have gotten 12-year olds chastised.

Baseball seasons have a way of rounding off edges, so a full stretch of 162 games figures to expose Puig’s weaknesses as well as give him a bigger showcase for his massive skill set.

What’s a reasonable expectation for Puig’s second season? Many people seem to be expecting some sort of regression, which is not exactly a knock on Puig’s value coming off a .925 OPS rookie season. Why don’t many analysts think Puig can keep up the frenetic pace of 2013? It seems to boil down to luck, which can’t be trusted over large sample sizes.

Puig batted .383 on balls in play last season, which, combined with a 19.1 percent line-drive rate, suggests he got a lot more than his fair share of hits on bloops and bleeders. In fact, Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus took it a step further and found that Puig had a “near-impossible,” BABIP on grounders.

Miller’s digging also produced this worry: Puig had a little fastball problem. He struck out 29 percent of the time when he swung at fastballs, a “terribly high,” number, according to Miller, which compares to a league average of 25 percent strikeouts against Craig Kimbrel’s fastball, maybe the best there is.

Miller writes:

This is very odd for a young player. Since 2009, there have been 26 players who got 350 plate appearances or more in an age-22 season. Puig’s whiff/swing rate on fastballs was the worst of them; only Oswaldo Arcia (28 percent) and Mike Stanton (26 percent) were close, and only one other player (Jason Heyward) whiffed on more than a fifth of his fastball swings.

Now, Puig also whiffs more than most players on breaking balls and off-speed pitches. His whiff rate on fastballs was only 72 percent as high as his whiff rate on breaking and off-speed pitches. But that figure—72 percent—is way higher than the typical 22-year-old. Pablo Sandoval, amazingly, whiffed more often on fastballs than on breaking and off-speed pitches. But otherwise, since 2009, Puig stands alone.

You could come away from Miller’s article with a dreary feeling about Puig’s 2014 prospects, but not all the evidence points to a sophomore slump. Puig actually made some impressive adjustments last season. Before the All-Star break, he swung at 41.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, making him the seventh-least disciplined hitter in baseball.

To no one’s surprise, pitchers threw him fewer strikes after the break. In fact, they threw him more pitches outside the strike zone than any hitter other than Chris Davis, Josh Hamilton, Pablo Sandoval and Miguel Cabrera. Puig cut his swing rate on balls down to 34.7 percent, only slightly worse than league average (31 percent). Not chasing was a big point of emphasis from manager Don Mattingly and hitting coach Mark McGwire.

Contrary to what many of Puig’s critics would say, he did, in fact, seem to listen. You also can't discount his desire, which seems to nearly match his talent. The Dodgers were tweeting video of Puig taking batting practice and lifting weights at Dodger Stadium weeks ago and Puig has already reported to Camelback Ranch, well before the first position-player workout on Friday.

We can really only guess what kind of season Puig is in for. As usual, it should make for spectacular theater whichever way it goes.