Yasiel Puig, the Non-All-Star

I don’t often write these sort of unfocused think-pieces. (Well, I happen to think that I don’t, but many of my commenters undoubtedly disagree.) Anyway, I’m thinking about Yasiel Puig today. After an impressive, intensely hyped first month, the Dodger wunderkind lost to Freddie Freeman in the fans’ vote for the All-Star Game. (Of course, with injury replacements and so on, he still has a chance of making the team.) Yesterday, Jeff Sullivan wrote about what he’s done. I’m more interested in what he represents.

I’m a Braves fan, so the immediate grumbling comparison in much of the Braves blogosphere was Jeff Francoeur. Here’s a comparison of their first 35 games:

  PA R HR RBI BB/K slash BAbip
Francoeur 134 28 10 30 1/27 .362/.381/.700 .398
Puig 152 27 8 19 7/35 .394/.428/.634 .480

So the comparison isn’t crazy, at least as far as the first month is concerned. Of course, Francoeur was 21 and Puig is 22, so that’s one difference. Another is that Francoeur was a first-round pick who signed for a $2.2 million signing bonus, while Puig was an international free agent who signed for $42 million. So it might be reasonable to expect Puig to turn out better than Frenchy — the variability for first round picks who don’t pan out is relatively well known, but the variability on first-round picks should be a lot higher than it is for players who sign large major league contracts.

If it weren’t, then it would be foolish to sign one Yasiel Puig for the price of 20 Jeff Francoeurs, or 2100 Hanley Ramirezes; Hanley signed for $20,000 in the year 2000, according to SoxProspects.com.

I haven’t written about Puig before, but I’m late to the party. Everyone else has, and it’s not hard to see why. Everyone loves “The Natural” stories — that’s why Francoeur was such a hot ticket back in 2005 — and Puig plays in the second-biggest media market in America. He seems to have single-handedly propelled the Dodgers back to relevance, much like Manny Ramirez did in the halcyon Mannywood days of 2009.

Just as a reminder, here’s how Manny did in his first 35 games:

  PA R HR RBI BB/K slash BAbip
Ramirez 152 24 11 34 24/23 .410/.507/.754 .429

So, as Puig has continued his tear, multiple narratives have cropped up in the wall-to-wall coverage, supplanting the initial elation. First, there’s the regression story, which Jeff touched on. Even if Puig goes on to a Hall of Merit career, we can be reasonably confident that his eventual career numbers will be worse than his current 2013 numbers.

(Although there is always a caveat: just because a fact is unlikely does not mean that it cannot occur. After all, it is fairly unusual for a planet to be able to sustain carbon-based life. As they say, that’s why they play the games.)

The second narrative is that he is gaining notoriety outside of Los Angeles. He was prominently involved in the terrible Dodger-Diamondback brawl, and, as Bill Plaschke writes, “The hot young outfielder and hitter is also now officially a villain.”

Atlanta Braves broadcaster Jim Powell lustily joined the fight, firing off a couple of salty tweets:

The regression story is easily stated. Puig does not have much of a track record in the United States, so it’s a bit harder to figure out exactly what baseline he is likely to regress to, but we can analyze the things that he does well and less well and figure out where some degree of regression is most likely to occur. That story has been written.

And the villain story, cheap shot aside, is partly fueled by the predictable backlash against a young phenom who has received more than his share of attention given his skimpy track record. (That’s basically the reason that Cole Hamels plunked Bryce Harper a year ago.) On the other hand, he’s a rah-rah guy, and Buster Olney reports that a scout told him in March that “Other players are going to hate him.” The longer Puig is in the league, the more of a chance he’ll have to proactively choose whether he wants to play a villain on the field.

Puig would not have been the most inexperienced All-Star ever selected. According to Steve Moyer of The Wall Street Journal, that would be Frankie Zak, a Pittsburgh Pirate who made it to the Midsummer Classic in 1944, when many stars were serving in the military. Zak came up in April of that year and played the entire month of May as a pinch runner; he finally played some innings at shortstop in June and had ten hits in his first 19 at-bats. The game was in Pittsburgh, and the 22-year old shortstop was batting .305 at the break. So he was an All-Star. Hey, it’s a popularity contest, remember?

Zak had 143 plate appearances the rest of his career, and obviously there’s really nothing remotely instructive about his example except for this: the voting for the All-Star Game has always, always been deeply silly. So, even though I’m happy as a Braves fan that Freddie Freeman will be an All-Star, in the final accounting, the fact that Freeman beat out Puig means exactly nothing. Just like the All-Star Game itself.

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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

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