Yasiel Puig’s Sudden Problems Making Contact

The story of last night’s NLDS Game 3 is almost certainly going to be about how the Dodger bullpen, which was known to be awful, was awful. After Pedro Baez in Game 1, and J.P. Howell in Game 2, it was Scott Elbert’s turn in Game 3. Other than Kenley Jansen, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is literally nothing Don Mattingly can do that isn’t going to blow up in his face. He could be the best manager in the world (well, probably not) or the worst, and we might never know, because the relievers he has at his disposal just keep on failing. (Yes, it was the right call to take out Hyun-jin Ryu, in his first start back from shoulder issues, when he did.)

Somewhat lost in that is the reality that if the Dodgers had merely managed to put up more than a single run against John Lackey and friends, they might not have needed to actually rely so heavily on the leaky pen. There’s a not-small part of that which is on umpire Dale Scott, but you can also only put so much on questionable umpiring. There’s a whole lot more you can put on things like… wow, did Yasiel Puig strike out seven times in a row?

All things considered, Puig’s 2014 was a success. After a stunning 2013 debut, he still had plenty of questions to answer about whether he could dial down some of his mistakes and continue producing, now that pitchers around the league had had a chance to identify his weaknesses. Even with a brutally awful August (62 wRC+), Puig was still worth 5 WAR in his second year. His 147 wRC+ was tied with Miguel Cabrera for the tenth-best mark in baseball, in part because he increased his walk rate by two percent, and decreased his strikeout rate by three percent. He even moved over to handle center field somewhat adequately, when the Dodgers had nowhere else to turn.

Not yet 24 until December, Puig has more than proven himself in the big leagues, and he warmed up for the playoffs by bouncing back from that awful August with a .284/.376/.432 line and three homers, more than he’d had in the previous three months. In the Dodgers’ 10-9 loss in Game 1 of the NLDS on Friday, Puig reached base three times, and he scored three times. He also ended the game when Trevor Rosenthal blew him away, but Rosenthal does that to a lot of guys, and any recollection of that game was always going to be about Clayton Kershaw’s implosion.

In Game 2, Puig struck out all four times he came up. In Game 3, he struck out the first two times he was up. That’s seven consecutive strikeouts, in the playoffs, in a sport where the record — I think, but am not 100% certain — for consecutive strikeouts in the regular season is nine, most recently by Mark Reynolds. According to ESPN, David Justice once whiffed eight times in a row in the playoffs. If this were May, it’d be a fun side note, or even merely a tweet, quickly forgotten. It’s October, so it’s a big story, especially with the Dodgers down 2-1 and needing a short-rest Kershaw to save them tonight.

So: How are the Cardinals making this happen?

Whiff No. 1

I’m not going to show it to you, but in Puig’s previous plate appearance before this, he’d actually been walked by Randy Choate, so this is really a run of eight straight times in which he didn’t put the ball in play. Walks are good, though, and Puig scored on an Adrian Gonzalez homer, so we don’t consider that a problem.

puig_rosenthal_strike-zoneRosenthal had allowed two hits and a run already, so when Puig came up, it was an extremely important at-bat. The St. Louis closer generally throws his fastball around 80% of the time, and always hard. Against Puig, he threw it 100% of the time, and always hard.

There’s not a lot of mystery here, is what I’m saying. Rosenthal threw seven pitches. Every single one was at 99 or 100, and every single one was on the higher part of the zone. Puig watched the first two to even the count at 1-1, swung through the third, and then proceeded to foul off the next three. Remember, this was two outs, down one, and the tying run, Andre Ethier, on third base. In the playoffs, it doesn’t get a lot bigger than this.

Basically, this was Rosenthal saying, I’m going to throw it as hard as I possibly can, see you if can do anything about it. Puig swung through it. Game over.

puig_strikeout_1_rosenthal

Not a lot of shame in that, really, especially in a game where Puig had scored three times. Rosenthal has a 31% K rate for his career. It’s what he does.

Whiff No. 2

puig_lynn-2While Rosenthal does nothing but throw high, hard heat, Lance Lynn operates a little differently, throwing six different pitches at times. In the first inning of Game 2, he’d already struck out Dee Gordon, and made sure not to let Puig get comfortable in any way, by consistently varying the pitch selection and location.

Lynn started Puig off with a fastball up, then a curveball in the dirt, both fouled off. Puig looked at a fastball just off the plate, then watched Lynn miss badly high. Remember that one, marked No. 4 on the chart to the right. We’ll get back to that.

With pitch No. 5, Lynn threw a low-and-away slider, and Puig bit on it, feebly:

puig_strikeout_2_lynn

You can see at the end of that GIF that Puig doesn’t walk away immediately, instead spending some time barking at Yadier Molina, ostensibly for the high pitch that was in the area of Puig’s head, more than it shows on the Gameday chart. Remember that the benches had cleared in Game 1 when Puig was hit by Adam Wainwright, and that Gonzalez got in Molina’s face over it. It’s mentioned here mostly because there’s a narrative that may or may not be true that the high pitch here was meant to get into Puig’s head, and that it did.

True or not, this is a pretty effective sequence by Lynn. 95 high, 82 low, 95 outside, 95 up and in, 89 moving away. Puig’s been known for going after that slider in the past, and the Cards set him up well for it.

Whiff No. 3

puig_lynn-3In the third, Lynn had allowed two hits and a groundout, so Puig came up with a 1-0 lead and a man on second. This time, Lynn worked him differently, starting with a curveball that Puig laid off on, then pounding the zone with fastballs, the first fouled off, the second watched.

The third, the 2-1 pitch marked as No. 4, that’s the problem here. That was the pitch, right down the middle, and while hitting a 96 mph fastball is easier said than done, that was the one that was teed up for Puig to launch it about 500 feet.

Unfortunately, he watched it go by, so when Lynn came back with a fastball with some movement on the outside of the plate, Puig nearly jumped out of his shoes to get it:

puig_strikeout_3_lynn

Clearly upset with himself, Puig heads back to the dugout. This is going to get worse before it gets better.

Whiff No. 4

puig_lynn-4We’re now in the fifth, and the Dodgers are up 2-0. (Don’t worry, they’ll blow it.) Puig got out in front of a first-pitch sinker, and fouled it off his leg. The second pitch, a fastball inside, also fouled off. Already, Puig is down 0-2. This isn’t a good start.

Lynn, again, tries the slider outside, this time a bit higher, and Puig spits on it. The fourth, a fastball (cutter, maybe) was easily outside.

Now it’s 2-2. It’s that outside slider, again, and Puig can’t lay off of it:

puig_strikeout_4_lynn

If there’s good news here, it’s that Lynn will be out of the game by the time Puig comes up again in the seventh, when we get…

Whiff No. 5

puig_gonzales-5…reliever Marco Gonzales, the first meeting between the two. Gonzalez doesn’t throw particularly hard, and he’s a lefty, making him considerably unlike Rosenthal and Lynn.

This one’s different in another way, too: Gonzales’ first pitch is the fattest, the one that in retrospect Puig might have wished he’d done something with. It’s a change, at least that’s how it was marked, because it didn’t seem to do much, and it came in at 80 mph. Puig, somehow, was behind it, and fouled it off to the right.

Gonzales wouldn’t give him much else. Pitch No. 2 was a sinker outside, fouled back. The third, a changeup in the dirt. The fourth was another change, and Puig was completely fooled by it.

puig_strikeout_5_gonzales

This is now five strikeouts in a row. His third strikes have all come swinging, on two fastballs, two sliders and a change. So far, there’s not really a pattern in terms of pitch selection, but everything is away. There’s also another game coming.

Whiff No. 6

puig_lackey_6Now, we’re in St. Louis for Game 3 on Monday night, and Lackey has no interest in messing around. The very first pitch is a fastball right down the middle, with Dee Gordon running, and Puig’s swing results in a foul tip. Pitch No. 2 is a slider, and it looked just as outside on the video as it does on Gameday, merely the first of what would be many complaints about Scott.

Up 0-2, Lackey tried to get Puig to chase, unsuccessfully. Up 1-2, he blows a four-seamer past Puig, much more successfully, as the broadcast remarks that Puig is starting his swing “before the ball is even delivered.”

puig_strikeout_6_lackey

No one notices two strikeouts in a row. Three, even. Four, only if they come in the same game. Now we’re up to six. This is getting painful to watch. There’s still another.

Whiff No. 7

puig_lackey_7Lackey bounces one in the dirt, and that’s where this is going to stay. Lackey does seem to have a plan on Puig, and it’s away, away, away, and low, mostly. Of the 11 pitches in these first two plate appearances, the last 10 were all outside.

This time around, Puig actually gets to 3-1. Things are better! Lackey throws ball four, ending the streak… except that Puig goes fishing for a slider, away. A 3-2 fastball is fouled off.

With the second 3-2 pitch, Lackey goes back to the fastball, over the outside half. It would have been a strike had Puig taken it, but he attacks, and…

puig_strikeout_7_lackey

… swings right through it. Strike three. Strike 21, really.

So what did we learn there? All seven whiffs finished with a swinging strike. 14 times, he fouled a ball off, which probably tells you that a lot of this is about timing. All seven came on pitches away, and while it’s not news that Puig has been vulnerable there, he had made progress in laying off those pitches this year. It’s not as simple as “throw everything on the outside half,” of course, because he had at least a few pitches that with better timing — the first Lackey pitch, the Gonzales change, the 2-1 Lynn fastball — that he absolutely could have hammered. (On the other hand: the two hits he had off Wainwright in Game 1 came on an inside pitch, and one in the dirt.)

It’s worth noting, also, that when Puig came up in the fifth inning, Lackey’s plan was the same: away, away, away. But this time, Puig managed to make solid contact with a fastball and drive it down the right field line for a double, and he’d soon score the only Dodger run on Hanley Ramirez‘ double.

Of course, even that joy was short-lived. In the eighth, against Pat Neshek, it was two sinkers and two sliders, all away, and another strikeout, his eighth in nine plate appearances. There’s “fighting it,” as they say in baseball, and then there’s this. As you can imagine, there’s already calls from the Dodger fanbase to replace Puig with Andre Ethier or Scott Van Slyke tonight. There’s no real indication that Mattingly is going to do that, nor should he, because Puig provides more value on defense and the bases, and because he’s simply the more talented hitter having the better season. Still, the Dodgers don’t have much rope left, and this can’t all be on Kershaw. Puig — and everyone else who didn’t put up runs against the Cardinals — needs to turn things around, and now.

It’s a funny sport we love, you know. In this season, Puig has been one of the best players in baseball. Also in this season, right now, he’s been one of the worst. He’s hardly the only reason that the Dodgers are facing a must-win game, because again he was productive in Game 1, and he scored their only run in Game 3. It’s just not a great time to forget how to connect with the ball.





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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phoenix2042
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phoenix2042

Is puig in general more streaky than most hitters? I remember a post a while back on streaky pitchers (and the conclusion was that if two pitchers have the same average results, the streaky one is better in terms of actually winning more ball games). I don’t recall one for hitters, however (an article I mean).