Maybe you haven’t heard quite as much about Yasiel Puig lately. I don’t know, I don’t know who you read and what you watch. But it’s hard for a player to sustain that level of coverage and interest, as Puig seemed to be absolutely everywhere for his first few weeks. Justifiably, of course. But Tuesday was a big day for Puig, in a sense — against the Diamondbacks, he drew two unintentional walks, for the first time in his young career. Previously, he had just four. And in case you thought Puig was slowing down, this month is new but he’s slugged .500. He hasn’t spent a day in the majors with a three-digit OPS. Puig is still excelling, and the Dodgers are still succeeding around him.
About those two walks, though. Walks aren’t as sexy as singles or doubles or triples or dingers or outfield assists, but walks are indicative of some degree of patience, of discipline. There’s reason for the Dodgers to be particularly encouraged by the bases on balls, because Puig is new, and because Puig is new, pitchers are in the process of adjusting to him. Baseball, as we’ve come to learn, is a game of constant adjustments, all career long, but perhaps the biggest adjustments come early on, and there’s word out on Puig. At least, that’s what the numbers are saying. Puig hasn’t stopped hitting, but pitchers have changed the way they attack.
When a guy first comes up, pitchers might take some time to feel him out. Perhaps they’ll already have advance scouting reports, but pitchers will explore for various strengths and various weaknesses. Once there’s a more comprehensive book, is has a tendency to get around, and that can be reflected by a few statistics. This part isn’t going to surprise you, but the adjustment to Puig has been to throw him more breaking balls, and fewer pitches in the strike zone. Also, Puig’s seen a few more high fastballs, but the breaking ball thing — it’s predictable, but it’s something Puig needs to show he can beat. Lots of hitters struggle with breaking balls low and away, and the best ones know to lay off. You can be good and over-aggressive, but it’s a challenge to be great.
Puig, in the bigs, has played 34 games. Let’s split those in half and take a look at a table:
I’ll acknowledge that the samples are pretty small, but there’s still significance in here. Puig’s rate of pitches in the zone has dropped a full ten percentage points. He’s continued to swing aggressively, and he’s seen a huge spike in sliders and curveballs. And look over at those contact rates — Puig was acceptably below-average before, but lately he’s been swinging and missing two-fifths of the time. We have contact-rate data going back to 2002, and since then, the only rates below 60% belong to Jared Sandberg and Aaron Harang. This year, baseball’s lowest rate belongs to Pedro Alvarez, at 64%. It’s probably not impossible to succeed while whiffing that often, but Puig’s been making it harder on himself.
Of course, over those last 17 games, Puig’s put up a .959 OPS. There’s a reason no one’s claiming that he’s struggling. But he probably won’t keep racking up 23 hits per 50 balls in play, so that’s partially masking what’s going on. Puig’s going to need to adjust back, at least somewhat.
Just for the sake of adding some color, let’s watch an at bat between Puig and Huston Street from late June:
During that plate appearance, the Padres broadcast talked about how the book was out. Street fed Puig four consecutive low-away sliders, and Puig went down helpless and hopeless. Obviously, he hasn’t always looked that bad, but pitchers haven’t quit.
The FanGraphs leaderboards have a “Last 14 Days” filter. Maybe 14 is kind of arbitrary, but if we just accept that, then over the last 14 days, Puig has seen baseball’s second-highest rate of sliders, behind only Brandon Phillips. And he’s seen baseball’s lowest rate of pitches in the zone, more than two percentage points below the runner-up Chris Davis. We find Puig just under 36%; then, between 38-39%, there are Davis, Alvarez, Giancarlo Stanton, Josh Hamilton, and Justin Morneau. Here’s a comparison between Puig and his Los Angeles teammates, from the same time window:
It’s not that the Dodgers haven’t been facing any strike-throwers. It’s that they’ve simply been reluctant to throw strikes to Puig, far more than to anybody else in the lineup. The plan is to force Puig to understand his own strike zone, and maybe this graph will help explain why, if that’s even necessary:
Unsurprisingly, Puig is also getting fed way fewer first-pitch fastballs. I feel like this post has had enough numbers in it, so I’ll try to tread lightly from here. He’s demonstrated a willingness to swing at balls and to swing at breaking stuff, and though he’s also homered against breaking stuff, you can’t beat a guy every time. You can only beat a guy as often as he doesn’t beat you, and pitchers seem to be making some real progress.
Which leaves it up to Puig to make real progress back. Which is why it’s nice to see that Puig drew a couple walks on Tuesday, even if that’s just two walks in one game. Interestingly, Puig established himself early on as a guy capable of doing damage to the opposite field, but he’s been more pull-happy so far in July, according to Texas Leaguers:
Don’t know what that is. Maybe just the natural consequence of seeing slower pitches, since slower pitches are easier to pull. Puig’s still hit a couple balls to right field really deep. That ability hasn’t eroded — maybe this is Puig doing what he can with what he’s been given. Puig’s adjustments should already be underway, assuming he’s trying to make some.
For his first several weeks in the major leagues, Yasiel Puig has been dominant. The Dodgers have gone 21-12 when he’s started in the lineup, ending up in the race they were favored to win. Puig, to some extent, has slowed down, but he hasn’t actually stopped hitting well. Yet pitchers have been changing the way they pitch to him, and beneath Puig’s surface numbers are some numbers of greater concern. What we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that Yasiel Puig has superstar ability. Superstar players adjust to the competition as the competition adjusts to them. Puig has proven himself in one way, and now he gets to try to prove himself in another.
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