LOS ANGELES -- It’s not often that a major league player changes his approach in a drastic way. It’s less often that a major league player changes his approach while he’s still enjoying success doing it the old way.
The Mike Trout comparisons are becoming more and more apt, because Puig is showing signs of becoming the kind of pure hitter -- selective, patient and lethal within the strike zone -- who is capable of contending for the MVP trophy season after season. Or, at least that’s what the Dodgers have seen from their highly unpredictable superstar in the past month or so.
As good as Puig was in 2013, he was at times a wild hacker, walking just 36 times in 432 plate appearances and occasionally falling easy victim to cerebral veteran pitchers or catchers.
In 2014, Puig isn’t offering pitchers such an easy avenue to get him out. He’s batting .318 and is tied for the team lead with 17 walks, giving him a .408 on-base percentage. He also happens to lead the Dodgers with 29 RBIs after he drove in four more during their 6-5 win over the Miami Marlins on Monday, and the Dodgers are pretty convinced that’s not a coincidence.
Dodgers pitcher Dan Haren has been at this for a while. He’s in his 12th season and he has faced his share of talented hitters with swing-first approaches, if they have any approach at all. He also has been teammates with Trout and had his share of battles with the Miguel Cabreras of the world. Very few great hitters are unwilling to take walks.
Remember when pitchers had supposedly figured out the way to get Puig out: hammer him inside with fastballs, get ahead and then tempt him with breaking balls away, many times in the dirt? It’s not working as well lately. Puig is on a 12-game hitting streak, batting .408 in that span. He and Adrian Gonzalez play a little game, competing to see who can get on base more in a given series. What’s amazing is that Puig is winning.
“He gets pounded in quite a bit, but from my experience as a pitcher, it’s very hard to throw strikes inside,” Haren said. “So, when you see it in like that and he’s been taking it lately, then he’s going to get into a better count and either make the pitcher come in to him or walk him, and he’s been taking his walks.
“If he’s going to take his walks, he’s going to get better pitches to hit and he’s going to get on base more, score more and do everything more.”
It would be kind of boring if it were just about taking walks. But Puig walked in the first inning against young right-hander Tom Koehler. With that still on his mind, Koehler tried to get ahead with a breaking ball in the strike zone on the first pitch to Puig in the fourth inning. Puig pounced, pummeling it into the bleachers for a three-run home run to give the Dodgers a 4-3 lead.
Suddenly, the listlessness was over. Haren admitted it was quieter than this weekend (when the San Francisco Giants were in town) both in the stadium and in the dugout before Puig’s swing.
“It was a little more of a peaceful atmosphere out there and then, once he hit that ball, everyone was fired up the rest of that game,” Haren said.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly beams with pride when he talks about Puig and his adjustments this season. Puig seems to bring out both the ex-hitting coach and the father in the Dodgers’ manager.
“They pitched him like he’s going to chase and he’s quit chasing,” Mattingly said. “He’s made the adjustment. You see it with guys with that kind of talent. It’s just a matter of putting the mind to it. Yasiel’s smart. He just has to stay under control.”
The longer Puig stays under control, the longer this Dodgers season remains on the tracks.