The number one name blowing up my twitter feed is also fun to say. Yasiel Puig is a manbearpuig, a monster, a manchild, and a linebacker playing baseball, and he once looked like the bodybuilder you see on the left. And yet his batting average on balls in play is over .500, he’s walked three times, and he’s just so impossibly hot that selling high on him — in keeper or redraft leagues — is a popular play. But is it the right one?
To answer this, I just wanted to put him in the context of his peers. He’s only 82 plate appearances into his career, so I had to set the minimums low (80 PA). But here are the top ten rookies in slugging percentage since 1974:
Obviously numbers two through four on the list could easily inject a sense of urgency into sell-high discussions for Puig owners. Mike Jacobs? Rico Brogna? Luke Scott? They are the stuff of nightmares. And, not coincidentally, they are the smallest-sample entrants onto the list, averaging about 150 plate appearances among them. The big-sample guys — Ryan Braun, Mark McGwire, and #11 on the list, Albert Pujols — all turned out to be pretty good players. But Puig fits in here, for better or for worse, as his strikeout rate and isolated slugging percentage are right in line with the top ten’s averages (19.3% and .307 respectively).
An easy fall-back would be to compare their respective prospect pedigrees. Mike Jacobs never made the Baseball America Top 100. Neither did Randy Ruiz or Luke Scott. But still you have flameouts in the top ten that were well-regarded. Rico Brogna was 35th on the list in 1991, and Daric Barton made it all the way to 28th in 2006. Puig debuted at 47th on this year’s version of the list, and so he fits in with Brogna and Barton to some extent.
Age is an important factor. Puig has not yet turned 23. If you trim that list for debuts that came from players that were 22 and under, it looks a little different:
Hold the phone. Table the talks. Now we only have two stinkers, and Daric Barton — who, it should be noted, never did anything like Puig did at Double-A this year — is the most prominent one. To be fair, the smaller-sample guys on this list didn’t all have powerful careers, but the role of scouting can help us here a bit. Puig looks powerful and has shown great power numbers in the minors. He was pursued for his power. He’s more Adam Dunn than Gregg Jefferies in that regard.
But the plate discipline stats are not Dunn-like, and they do provide us a new bogeyman: Juan Encarnacion. The notable Tiger and Marlin never got his career walk rate over six percent, struck out near the league average, and found his weaknesses exploited as he made his way through the league. He had a .220 ISO in Double-A — not quite Puig’s .286, but decent — and was a toolsy guy that exploded onto the scene, had a four- or five-year peak, and then disappeared (even if injury played a role, he was on his way out).
Should the specter of Juan Encarnacion scare Puig owners into selling? I don’t think so. Look at Encarnacion’s peak from a fantasy standpoint. His average per-162-game season from 1999-2003 showed a .267 average, 21 home runs and 23 stolen bases. That was useful, and it looks like Puig has more power.
Don’t let iffy walk rates scare you too badly, as long as they don’t come with bad strikeout rates (and even then, Chris Davis happens sometimes). Here are the guys that walked less than league average, struck out less than 22% of the time last year (but more than 16%), and showed an ISO over .200:
These are all useful players, even if they are missing some skills that make them a little less attractive in the real-life game. But if you had a young Nelson Cruz, wouldn’t that be a good consolation prize if Puig doesn’t Puig all over the league for the rest of time? What about a more powerful Adam Jones? Or a young Garrett Jones with speed and no platoon splits (hopefully, since he was excellent against righties in the minor leagues)? Yes, please.
Puig’s lack of sample size makes him feel riskier than he perhaps is. His combination of age, skills, and pedigree actually puts him in a near-elite group already. His work on slimming down his body and getting faster has improved his stock, and he’d likely be much higher on prospect lists if they came out today. The skillset he’s showing now — without looking at BABIP, and instead focusing on players with power, average-ish strikeout rates, bad walk rates, and some speed — can be valuable even when he’s not as crazy hot as he is now.
You can sell high in a redraft league if someone offers you an established star. But will Matt Kemp‘s shoulder heal enough this year to show as much power as Puig? What is the state of Ryan Braun‘s right to play in the league this year? Will Jason Heyward necessarily outduel him once speed is factored in? What about Yoenis Cespedes‘ strikeout rate? You’d have to offer a surer thing than one of that trio to pry Puig loose in my mind.
And in keeper leagues? Hands off. I signed him, and waited for him to make it to the bigs, and I see enough between the batted ball luck and power explosion that I’ll take my chances and keep the crazy good young outfielder with all the hype. If I end up with Juan Encarnacion with a bit more power, I’ll have a decent consolation prize.