If Yasiel Puig’s 2013 rookie season, in which he batted .319 and hit 19 home runs in just over 100 games left you expecting big things from the Cuban then you’d be forgiven for feeling pretty disappointed with what has followed since. Statistically speaking, each season since has been worse than the one before, and that is without dwelling on the various off-field shenanigans surrounding the man dubbed ‘Wild Horse’ by Vin Scully.
Last season things came to something of a nadir when Puig was sent down to Triple-A Oklahoma City for the month of August. The Dodgers felt is was time for Puig to work on his mechanics and approach, and to take him out of the limelight. In her excellent book on the Dodgers, Molly Knight details Puig’s volatility and his lack of tolerance of criticism, so it was a big call for Dave Roberts and the front office to make. The only thing the Dodgers will be regretting at the moment is not having done it sooner, because since returning to the 25-Man Roster in September Puig has an OPS of .906, and has hit a home run every 16 plate appearances, which translates to 40+ HR pace for a 162 game season.
Perhaps the demotion to the minors was just the tonic Puig needed, giving him time and motivation to reflect on his attitude and approach to the game. Certainly he has spoken since of the maturity of fatherhood, and his hunger to end the Dodgers championship drought. While my (admittedly unskilled!) eyes can’t see much difference in his swing, there is evidence to suggest that he has actually changed his approach at the plate since September, and signs at least that the green shoots of promise we’ve seen so far this April could blossom into an elite level season.
Puig has said himself that he has been determined to hit more fly balls, and certainly his fly ball percentage of 42.9% is higher than it has ever been. Combining that with the fact that his hard hit percentage is back to 2013 levels helps to explain why Puig’s ISO this year is 60 points higher than it has ever been.
In terms of plate discipline things are looking better than ever too. He is seeing more pitches than ever before, and swinging less often at pitches outside the strike zone. Subsequently he is walking 14.9% of the time, a significant jump even from his 2014 best 10.5%. In addition to that he is striking out much less frequently – just 11.9% of the time against his career average 20%.
For all the statistical improvement since September, Puig’s BABIP is lower this year than it has ever been, indicating that he’s not getting lucky in terms of balls falling for base hits. This could be a sign that he’s actually been a slightly unlucky hitter thus far this year and that there’s a good chance things will improve further in the coming months. Given the mediocre start the Dodgers have made to 2017 they will be crossing their fingers that this is the case, and not another false dawn.