Sunday, the American League Championship Series brought us wild swings in win expectancy, a roller coaster of a game that left people in awe. Game Three of the National league Championship Series brought us wild swings in emotion, but they didn’t show up in the game graph. Or, they didn’t show in the entirety of the game graph: they showed in that one highlighted at-bat in the graph, and in the actions of one player. Yasiel Puig inspired many emotions, before, during and after his game-changing triple, but he was also, maybe fittingly, the batter that added the most win probability to his team’s chances Monday night. In essence, the game turned on his matchup with Adam Wainwright in the fourth inning.
The first pitch from Wainwright to Puig was a sinker inside. Fairly innocuous. Except that Wainwright was a league leader in first-pitch strike percentage (17th among qualified pitchers), and yet his first pitch was almost ten inches off the inside corner. He almost certainly threw inside on purpose, instead of throwing in the zone, and he probably did so because of the Yasiel Puig baseball saw in the first half. That Puig offered on 41.1% of balls outside the zone (seventh-worst in baseball). Pitchers saw that eagerness to swing and, in the second half, threw him in the zone less than anyone not named Chris Davis, Josh Hamilton, Pablo Sandoval, and Miguel Cabrera. So Puig adjusted back. He cut his swing rate on pitches outside the zone to 34.7%, only slightly worse than league average (31%) and good for 58th-worst in baseball. Only 13 regular players improved their second half O-Swing% as much as Puig.
Puig didn’t swing on the first pitch from Wainwright, a sinker. Ball one, a triumph in making adjustments.
You face Adam Wainwright, you know you’ll get a yellow hammer, a yakker, a knee buckler. Since 2009, that curveball has been worth almost twice as much as any other in baseball and that’s why he’s thrown it more than all but five other starters in the same time frame. The curveball was coming, and even given all of Puig’s second-half adjustments, he was probably going to whiff at one. After all, given 400 plate appearances, nobody had a higher swinging strike rate than Puig this year. And by pitch type values, the curve is Puig’s second-worst pitch.
Puig swung at the second pitch from Wainwright, a curve ball. He missed, highlighting the flaws he still sports.
“Soft away, hard inside” said Ron Darling, and he was right that the approach was clear. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Puig had seen the pitch before. And he didn’t swing the first time. For all the belief that the player can be hard headed, here he demonstrates some restraint.
Puig didn’t swing at the third pitch from Wainwirght, a sinker inside. The count was two and one.
By the PITCHf/x data, this pitch was the furthest outside. The network pitch tracker didn’t see it that way, and perhaps that has something to do with the fact that it was tailing towards the batter at the end, as sinkers do. If it was indeed outside the zone on the outside corner, Puig wasn’t necessarily out of his element. His five opposite field home runs ranked in the top 20 in baseball this year despite the fact that he only went to the plate 432 times (his isolated slugging to the opposite field was 12th). High and outside is actually a strength for him, according to this run value heat map from BaseballHeatMaps:
Puig took a high sinker — not a flat one, if PITCHf/x and its double-digit vertical movement number can be believed — deep to right field.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a roller coaster with just a dip and a peak. So to provide a little more spice, Yasiel Puig flipped his bat, thinking he’d hit a home run. This could have been a big deal. In the past, other players around the league have called him out for this sort of bad behavior. It could have cost him bags. Particularly because he continued to admire his blast.
Today, you know that Puig hit a triple. But in the moment, at the game, you might have been screaming. Run until you know! That ball isn’t gone yet! At least one fan in the stadium dreaded the possibility of a long single and cursed his team’s exciting young outfielder. Luckily, Yasiel Puig is not just about power.
— Larry Granillo (@wezen_ball) October 15, 2013
Puig flipped his bat. He admired his hit. He went into third standing. He slowed at the end. And Puig came up two-thirds of a second short of one of the fastest men in baseball legging out an inside the park home run.
No player is all parts ‘fireplug’ or ‘veteran’ or ‘headcase,’ even one as controversial as Yasiel Puig. All year long, he’s made blunders in the field and on the basepaths. All year long, he’s shown us feats of strength with his arm, his legs, and his bat. In Game Three Monday night, he showed us that he’s not as incorrigible as he’s been portrayed to be. And yet, he also showed us the same flaws that have inspired some to wonder if he would cost his team with a big blunder in October. You can’t fit him easily into one narrative, but at least it looks like the emerging story is a compelling one.