The Growing Legend of Yasiel Puig

Yasiel Puig has been in the Major Leagues for a week. In the seven days since he was called up from Double-A, he’s hit as many home runs as Andre Ethier has all season. He’s already doubled Matt Kemp‘s 2013 home run total. He ended his first game in the majors by starting a double play, throwing a laser from right field to nail a runner retreating to first on a long fly ball. Puig-mania is in full effect, and needless to say, he’s not going back to the minor leagues no matter how many Dodgers outfielders eventually return from the DL.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement. If you’ve missed his absurd debut, MLB.com has an embeddable five minute video of his early accomplishments, so you can relive the glory of Yasiel Puig’s incredible first week below.

It’s almost impossible to imagine a player having a better first week in the big leagues. Maybe he could have come on in relief and earned a save or something, but short of that, Puig’s first seven days in the big leagues were basically perfect. So, now, the question is whether we’re watching the emergence of a franchise player or the convergence of a great talent facing a bunch of bad pitchers who don’t yet know how to get him out.

Without trying to be a wet blanket, the quality of competition at least deserves a mention. His first three games came against the Padres — the team that owns baseball’s worst pitching staff — and were nice off to throw a pair of left-handed starters at him. When the Braves came to town and he faced Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, and Mike Minor, he stopped hitting balls over the fence every night, though he did go 3 for 9 against that group, so it wasn’t like he was totally helpless against good pitching. However, before we put him in Cooperstown, we should at least note that he’s not the only right-handed batter who has had fun hitting against the likes of Clayton Richard this year.

The other concern about Puig’s future as a superstar is his approach. He famously tore up spring training but did so without drawing a single walk, and he hasn’t been any less aggressive in the big leagues since getting called up. Puig is a supremely talented hitter, but he wouldn’t be the first exceptional athlete to fail because of a lack of strike zone judgment. After all, Josh Hamilton is showing just how vulnerable even the best physical talents can be when pitchers figure out how to attack weaknesses created by an over-aggresive approach.

But, just for fun, let’s run with that comparison. Here’s Yasiel Puig’s plate discipline stats compared to those of Hamilton.

Name PA O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone%
Yasiel Puig 29 42.9% 71.4% 57.1% 72.2% 86.7% 81.3% 50.0%
Josh Hamilton 571 36.4% 76.4% 54.5% 63.1% 82.3% 75.3% 45.1%

The number of plate appearances might have given this away, but those aren’t Hamilton’s 2013 plate discipline numbers; those are his numbers from 2010, when he hit .359/.411/.633 and won the AL MVP award despite taking the last few weeks of the season off. If the question is whether a hitter can possibly succeed with the approach that Puig is currently displaying, the answer is a definitive yes.

Mentioning Hamilton as a comparison right now might seem like a warning, given how poorly he is doing in Anaheim at the moment, but Hamilton has a career 130 wRC+ in the big leagues despite never really having any idea of the strike zone. And Puig’s first week plate discipline numbers are better than Hamilton’s were in Hamilton’s best season.

Puig is an aggressive hitter, but I’m not sure there’s a lot of evidence that he’s so aggressive that it’s actually going to keep him from being an elite hitter. Yeah, he didn’t walk in spring 58 spring training at-bats, but it’s spring training, and we all know that the numbers down there are essentially worthless. In Double-A, Puig didn’t really distinguish himself as some kind of hacker extraordinaire. From Minor League Central, his swing stats from Chattanooga — with the caveat that these are culled from much less reliable play-by-play data than we have at the big leagues, so add some uncertainty around these — show that he swung at 51.5% of the pitches he was thrown, not that much higher than the league average of 47.2%.

In 167 plate appearances at Double-A, Puig drew 15 walks, a 9.0% walk rate that was higher than the league average. He made contact nearly 80% of the time he swung the bat, and he’s maintained that rate in one week’s worth of big league plate appearances. And, really, look at the pitches that Puig has swung at in week one, courtesy of TexasLeaguer’s PITCHF/x plots.

PuigSwings

I mean, if one is trying to make the argument that Puig is an undisciplined hack who will be exposed if he keeps swinging as often as he is, that chart is a little problematic. He’s chased a few pitches in and a few pitches down, but by and large, the pitches that Puig has swung at have been hittable. That is the swing plot of a guy who is responding to being challenged by proving he can hit pitches in the strike zone, not the swing plot of a guy who is just wildly waving at anything coming out of the pitcher’s hand.

And, perhaps most impressively is how well Puig is driving the ball to right field. Look at this spray chart.

PuigSpray

He’s basically pulled two pitches to the outfield, and one of those he put it into the left field seats. Everything else in the air has been to center or right field, including a pair of opposite field home runs. A lot of the frustration that stems from watching undisciplined young hitters is that they tend to pull a lot of pitches on the outside corner, rolling them weakly to an infielder or hitting a shallow pop fly if they get under it. When Puig gets pitched away, he’s hitting rockets to right field.

It’s seven games, four of which came against a Triple-A pitching staff. Major League pitchers haven’t yet had time to scout Puig and adjust to his weaknesses. They will adjust, and he’s going to have to make counter adjustments, or else he may very well end up as Alfonso Soriano 2.0.

But, so far, there’s no reason to think that’s the most likely outcome. What Puig has done since arriving in the U.S. all point to him being a phenomenally talented player whose baseball skills were undersold last summer. Calling him raw might be fair to an extent, but he’s not so raw that he’s showing glaring weaknesses in his game that are just waiting to be exploited.

Seven days in, Yasiel Puig looks like a star in the making. Maybe his approach will eventually become a problem, but it took opposing pitchers seven years to figure out how to get Josh Hamilton out. He might not walk much, but he looks like a guy who could be so good at everything else that it won’t matter.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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