Roughly a quarter of the 2014 season is in the books, and the sample sizes are creeping toward a representative level. Over the next couple of weeks, let’s take a somewhat deeper look at some of this season’s more noteworthy players and performances to date. “Noteworthy” doesn’t always mean “best”, though it does in most cases. Today, we’ll take a look at the first quarter performance of Yasiel Puig, who has done his best to blot out any notion that last season’s breakout was a fluke. His 2014 numbers are even better than last year’s, which were believed by many to have overly fueled by BABIP. What makes Puig tick, and how good could he eventually get?
In the aftermath of the A’s successful signing of Yoenis Cespedes, the Dodgers ventured into the Cuban professional ranks and signed Puig to a seven-year, $42M major league contract in 2012. Like Cespedes before him and Jose Abreu afterward, Puig had great success in Serie Nacional, the top rung of the Cuban professional ranks. Unlike them, however, he had not sustained this success – a loud .330-.431-.581 line in 2010-11 – over a material period of time. In addition, Serie Nacional stats are notoriously spotty. Critically, however, the guy the Dodgers signed was only 21 years old at the time. If this seven-year gamble panned out, they would be locking up Puig through age 27, while the A’s and White Sox would be buying themselves some decline phase along with some of Cespedes’ and Abreu’s prime years. Was Puig good enough to warrant such an investment?
It didn’t take long for that question to be answered definitely. Puig knifed through the Dodgers’ system, batting .328-.405-.611 over 229 minor league at-bats, and then exploded onto the scene at Dodger Stadium last summer. While his style has often overshadowed it, the substance has been there from Day One. While his plus-plus arm strength, his rawness in certain aspects of the game, and his immaturity in general often garnered the headlines, Puig has been one of the game’s top offensive producers since the day he showed up. How historic is the opening to act to his career? Consider this.
Puig posted a 159 OPS+ in his rookie year at age 22. That’s the ninth best such season ever among rookies 22 or younger, behind Mike Trout (2012 – 171), Jimmy Sheckard (1901 – 169), Sam Crawford (1901 – 167), Pete Reiser (1941 – 165), Bernie Carbo (1970 – 164), Dick Allen (1964 – 145), Ted Williams (1939 – 160) and Alex Rodriguez (1996 – 160). Next in line is Albert Pujols (2001 – 157). Puig is off to an even better start in 2014, with a 185 OPS+ to date. There’s a long way to go, but that’s better than each of those players did in their second MLB seasons. Trout did best at 179, Williams was next at 162, followed by Crawford (152), Pujols (151), Allen (145) and Reiser (143). A-Rod was well behind at 120. Williams and Crawford are in the Hall of Fame, Pujols will be, Allen should be, Reiser likely would have been if he didn’t enjoy throwing himself into brick walls so much, and Trout is, well he’s Mike Trout. Best guess, once the 2014 season is in the books, Puig’s first two seasons will compare favorably to all of these players except for Trout.
He’s worn out lefthanded (.343-.418-.564) and righthanded (.317-.396-.548) pitching thus far in his brief career. His platoon differential is negligible, and he’s actually hit righties significantly better thus far in 2014. He’s more than just a hitter, as well. Though his defense has been uneven at times, both UZR and DRS grade him as a slightly above average RF, with his howitzer arm a significant contributor to his defensive value. He is not a very good or prolific basestealer, but he can really fly underway, and his high BABIP, as we shall see, is attributable in part to his speed.
So what do we have in Yasiel Puig? Is he a tooled-out youngster with lots of bells and whistles to his game that will fade with age, or is he a generational talent? Let’s take a look at his 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data, through Tuesday night’s games, for some hints. Keep in mind that the sample sizes remain small, so most of the contextual information incorporated below is from the 2013 season. No matter – we’re not searching for exactitude here, just looking for some indicators.
|FREQ – 2014|
|PROD – 2014|
|Puig||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
Let’s start with the frequency table. Both Puig’s K and BB rates are above MLB average, with percentile ranks of 70 and 76, respectively. This high BB rate is a very positive sign for Puig – for all that has been said about his overaggressiveness in various facets of the game, he’s been earning respect, putting up some quality at-bats, and accepting the walks that pitchers are becoming increasingly inclined to give him. He’s done in a year what many young sluggers struggle to ever accomplish. His popup rate (41 percentile rank) is low for a power hitter, but his ground ball rate (78 percentile rank) is quite high. For him to truly take advantage of his raw power, that is going to have to come down.
The second table lists the production from and hints at the authority of Puig’s batted balls. The actual production allowed for each BIP type is listed in the “AVG” and “SLG” columns, and is converted into run values, compared to MLB average and scaled to 100 in the “REL PRD” column. Estimates of context, i.e., ballpark, player speed, team defense, simple regression and luck are applied in the “ADJ PRD” column in an attempt to isolate his true batting talent. For the purposes of this exercise, HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation, and SH and SF are counted as outs. Again – this is relatively small sample, with much subjectivity in the contextual adjustments, so let’s not get caught up in absolute precision here.
Puig is batting .500 and slugging 1.667 on fly balls to date. While that is below Jose Abreu’s fly ball performance to date, which was covered earlier this week, his actual 436 REL PRD is higher than any 2013 regular’s. Adjusted for context it drops quite a bit to 244, a figure that would still place him among the top ten in 2013 fly ball ADJ PRD. Puig’s power isn’t solely to pull, as two of his homers so far have been to RCF – this is legit fly ball thump. Puig hiked up his actual performance on liners with three hits last night, but often hits his liners so hard that they carry to the outfielders. He has a line drive homer – a relatively rare occurrence – already this year, and his ADJ PRD of 116 on liners is conservatively regressed to 99.
Then there’s the ground balls. Major league hitters are batting .237 AVG-.260 SLG on grounders so far this year, but Mr. Puig is batting an even .400 on them. Part of that is luck, but part is due to an extremely high percentage of hard ground balls. Even after adjustment for context, Puig’s ADJ PRD of 132 on grounders would rank quite high among 2013 regulars, but there is certainly a speed premium at work here as well. As we’ll see later, this isn’t a new development, but rather a continuation of a theme from 2013.
So what have we got? We’ve got a guy who roasts the ball in the air and on the ground, but who hits it on the ground too often to fully take advantage of his power upside. Unlike many young power hitters who rely heavily on batted-ball authority due to the work-in-process status of their plate discipline, Puig already has a sound plate discipline foundation. If this guy can find a way to get more baseballs into the air……watch out.
Which got me to thinking……which other young power hitters in the game today hit the tar out of the baseball, but have a similar problem getting the ball off of the ground? One other player – with 180 degree differences in almost every facet of the game besides BIP-type frequency and batted-ball authority – who fills the bill is Mark Trumbo. Check these out:
|FREQ – 2013|
|PROD – 2013|
|Puig||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
|Trumbo||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
The frequency differences aren’t all that notable. Trumbo struck out more, but their batted-ball type frequencies are largely in sync. Production-wise, Puig outperformed Trumbo on fly balls, but after adjustment for context, Trumbo’s fly ball authority was even better than Puig’s. Both had very similar hard and soft-groundball rates, and had nearly identical ADJ PRD on grounders. Trumbo’s very high K rate causes his ADJ PRD to plummet from 153 to 119 when the K and BB are added back in, while Puig’s went down much less, from 123 to 110.
Based on batted-ball frequency/authority, Mark Trumbo out-batted Yasiel Puig in 2013. This is where the difference in athleticism and speed come in. Remember Puig’s .400 average on grounders in 2014? Well, he was nearly as good in 2013, at .349 AVG-.373 SLG. Puig hits top speed very quickly, and beats out many more grounders than your average baserunner. Trumbo’s ADJ PRD on grounders was 153, much higher than Puig’s – but he batted only .225-.246 on grounders. Part of the reason that Puig’s isolated power on fly balls and liners is so high is his speed, as he’ll take the extra base much more than Trumbo, or just about any other power hitter. He has speed and batted-ball authority on his side, while Trumbo has only the latter.
There are other young power hitters in the game today who simply need to hit more fly balls to reach their power potential – Carlos Gonzalez, Jason Heyward, Eric Hosmer, Manny Machado, even the 2013 version of Giancarlo Stanton, also belong to this group. Even in such elite company, Puig’s all-around upside is likely the greatest. Put it this way – what kind of numbers could you see him putting up playing his home games in Coors Field?
Not every young power hitter figures it out, however. If Puig were to stay right where he is on his development curve, and gradually watched his physical tools erode, he could be a .280-.350-.480 type offensive player for a decade or so, a latter day Raul Mondesi. The upside is far, far greater than that. While Dodger Stadium is pitcher-friendly on balance, it is very friendly to hitters with middle-of-the-field power. Late-career Manny Ramirez had an absolute blast in his short time taking aim on the center field fence at Chavez Ravine, and Puig may not even have entered the meat of his prime at this point. One could argue that Puig has already tackled the hard parts, assimilating to the US culture, addressing the plate discipline issue, etc.. Elevating the ball more and often and further tapping into his power potential should be a piece of cake, relatively.
A year ago, you may have been able to find some detractors to assert that Puig’s body might get away from him due to lack of maturity, his overaggressiveness would get the best of him, etc., but detractors are hard to find these days. Sure, the body could be a maintenance issue going forward, and he does show some signs of becoming a little pull-happy, but the rapid growth of Puig’s all-around game has been something to behold. He still makes the occasional defensive gaffe, but those are minor blemishes on the burgeoning work of art that is his all-around game. The guess here is that we have a true superstar on our hands, possibly the one guy who can crack the Trout-Cabrera pantheon in the immediate near term. He could hit .330+ with 30-40 homers the next couple years, but after that we may see a blastoff in power production at the cost of 20-30 points of batting average, largely offset by additional walks – a trade that any front office would take.
You can criticize the Dodgers for many things – they have too much replacement-level talent surrounding their stars, they have some large, dead wood contracts, they unnecessarily gun through their bullpen seemingly every day despite having the GDP of a medium-sized country invested in their starting rotation – but they got Puig right. One player, one contract, one decision, can make a ballclub, an era. Ask the Cards how drafting Albert Pujols transformed their franchise. Yasiel Puig just might have the same impact on the Los Angeles Dodgers.
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