Yasiel Puig, it should go without saying, is one of the most fascinating players in baseball. He was incredible in his debut last year, and somehow has been better this year, to a near-historic extent, as he’s notably improved his plate discipline and become one of the best overall hitters in the game. He’s almost certainly going to start in the All-Star Game, and, along with Andrew McCutchen, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gomez and Giancarlo Stanton, he’s going to get some National League MVP consideration.
Really, it’s not hard to see why. If you think about a “five-tool player,” Puig seems to fit that description pretty well. Does he have the hit tool? Of course. Power? Obviously. Throwing arm? Even more obviously. Defense? Well, the defensive metrics don’t love him, but he can do this, which also took a fair amount of the fifth tool, speed. There’s seemingly nothing Puig can’t do on a baseball field; there’s seemingly several things he can do that no one else can.
Except… there’s one thing that Puig is still really, really bad at: For all his speed, he absolutely cannot steal bases, to the point that he really should give up trying to completely. For now, at least.
On Sunday, as the Dodgers were on their way to losing 6-2 to the Diamondbacks, Puig singled in his first plate appearance, coming in the bottom of the first with two outs against Bronson Arroyo. When Miguel Montero cut him down trying to steal, it marked Puig’s seventh caught stealing of the year against only seven successful steals. That’s a 50 percent success rate in a sport where the average this year is 73.9 percent, and it makes for the 15th caught stealing in the barely more than a year that he’s been in the big leagues, with only 18 successes.
Or, put another way, Puig is one of 48 players to attempt to steal at least 30 times in 2013-14. Guess how that’s working out for him:
|Alejandro De Aza||28||12||40||0.700|
That’s difficult to read in any other way than being shockingly terrible, particularly because the group of players who attempt to steal the most often should be self-selected for skill. That is, it doesn’t matter whether or not David Ortiz is a good base stealer, because he’s never getting the chance to do it often enough to appear on this list. That’s why you see that the overwhelming majority of the players here are at least league-average; many are considerably above. Only a few really fall into the poor, sub-70 percent range, and only Puig is down into the 50s. Either you steal with a high percentage of success, or you should be running very rarely. That’s not exactly revolutionary.
We can do better than straight steals and fails, though. In Puig’s 168-game career, which isn’t a perfect stand-in for one full regular season but which is close enough for these purposes, he’s been worth -2.9 wSB. (That’s “weighted stolen bases,” and you should read the entire explanation, but the short version is that it “estimates the number of runs a player contributes to his team by stealing bases, as compared to the average player,” that it’s era-adjusted, and that it is a component of WAR.)
You look at the best wSB seasons ever, and you get the names you’d expect — Vince Coleman, Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, Maury Wills, etc. You look at the worst, and you get… well, I don’t really know what should be “expected,” but it’s an odd collection of middle infielders who were probably asked to steal more than they should have simply because they were light-hitting guys without much value elsewhere — Alfredo Griffin, Jose Vizcaino, Duane Kuiper — and sluggers who had no business running in the first place, like Will Clark and Dave Parker.
Puig’s -2.9 doesn’t come close to being on the first page of the worst ever, but it’s not that far off, either. Of the 8,289 qualified player seasons we have since 1947, Puig’s hypothetical “year” would have been better than only 58 or them, or 0.0069 percent. -2.9 is tied with noted speedsters like Gene Tenace (1974), Vinny Castilla (1998), and Aubrey Huff (2009). This is pretty clearly not company one wants to be in.
It’s not, obviously, that Puig can’t run. The pure physical skills are clearly there, and when you look at UBR — “Ultimate Base Running,” or basically everything that’s involved in running the bases that isn’t trying to steal — he’s also been poor over his career, but there’s at least improvement there. In 2013, that number was also -2.9, which is below average. To date in 2014, it’s 0.1. If you’re trying to quantify the feeling that Puig is making fewer silly mistakes on the bases than he did last year, there it is. He was below average last year, and he’s improved to average this year. It’s not out of the question that he continues to improve to above average. The skills are there; the experience, perhaps, is not.
That makes sense, really, given what we know about Puig. Raw talent can turn a 98 mph fastball into a 450 foot home run. It takes time to be able to recognize when what you’re getting is that fastball or a splitter that’s going to dive out of the zone. With experience, Puig has improved his plate discipline. All it takes is massive physical skill to be able to launch a rocket from right field to third base on the fly; it takes an education in baseball strategy to know when it makes sense to try or when hitting the cutoff man is preferable. We’ve seen considerable improvement in these things from Puig in his year in the bigs; it’s reasonable to expect that he can learn to steal more efficiently as well, especially with the assistance of well-respected Dodger coach Davey Lopes.
Until then? The Dodgers need to give Puig the red light. On a team that has the best wRC+ in baseball but somehow has only the 12th-best runs per game mark, running into outs is not the way to turn that offensive production into actual runs. Despite all of Puig’s obvious physical gifts, he’s hurting the team every time he tries to steal. If he were to keep up his 2014 pace, he’d end up with about -4.0 wSB. It would be in the worst 20 seasons of all time. This can be avoided, until he’s gained enough experience to do it properly.
Print This Post