Let’s talk about something Yasiel Puig did on Monday. In the fourth inning, off Tom Koehler, he hit a home run. He does that. In the fifth inning, off Henry Rodriguez, he walked on four pitches. The same guy had just previously walked Dee Gordon and Dan Haren. In the third inning, Puig flied out. In the seventh inning, Puig grounded out. For good measure, Puig also got caught stealing. But let’s hone in on the bottom of the first. Gordon led off with a groundout, and then it was Puig vs. Koehler with nobody on.
First pitch, fastball, in the zone, foul. Second pitch, fastball, in the zone, foul. That quickly, Koehler was ahead of Puig 0-and-2, and there is no more advantageous count for a pitcher, aside from 0-and-3. Koehler could choose from anything to try to put Puig away, and Puig was put on the total defensive. At that point, he probably wished he would’ve put one of the fouls in play.
For the third pitch, Koehler liked the idea of a low-away slider. It was almost too obvious. Almost every right-handed hitter has problems with the low-away slider, and Koehler figured he might be able to dismiss Puig right away with a pitch that’s basically unhittable.
Still 1-and-2. Count still favors the pitcher. How about a high fastball?
Even. With the eye level changed, why not go back to the slider, and maybe bring it closer to the plate? It’s one thing to lay off it once. It’s quite another to lay off it twice.
Full, then. Maybe a low fastball, that Puig’ll think is a slider until it’s too late, or something.
The last pitch was borderline. To get there, however, Puig had to lay off a couple tricky two-strike sliders, as well as a fastball up. In the end, Yasiel Puig turned an 0-and-2 count into a walk. It’s the second time he’s done so already in 2014, after doing it precisely zero times in 2013. Last year, after 0-and-2, Puig had zero walks and 43 strikeouts. This year he’s at two and 17, the important bit being the two.
It’s the damnedest thing, this version of Yasiel Puig. All that is up there is basically an anecdote, but we don’t have to rely on anecdotes to support the conclusion that Puig is playing a lot more disciplined so far this year. This is a guy who blew into the room with his hair on fire and with his pants also on fire, and Puig made a name for himself with over-aggressiveness everywhere, in every facet. He was a little too aggressive at the plate. He was a little too aggressive in the field. He was a little too aggressive with his arm, and he was a little too aggressive on the bases. He’s still aggressive on defense, and he’s still aggressive on the bases, and he’s still overall a work in progress as the Dodgers try to polish out the rougher bits, but as far as hitting is concerned, the only thing 2014 Puig has in common with 2013 Puig is the absurd wRC+. He’s taken a different road to get there.
Just on the surface, the walks are up, and the strikeouts are down. The power is up, a little, and the exceptional BABIP is essentially unchanged. But keep on scrolling. Last season, Puig swung at well over half of all pitches. This season, he’s swung at well under half of all pitches. He’s swinging at far fewer balls, and he’s been more selective with strikes, and presumably as a consequence of all this, Puig has lifted his perilous contact rate. We can put this in some context.
There are 198 players who batted at least 100 times in 2013, and who have batted at least 100 times in 2014. Puig has increased his contact rate by seven percentage points, putting him in the top-ten of the biggest gainers. He’s lowered his swing rate by eight percentage points, which is the second-biggest drop. And he’s lowered his swing rate at balls by more than ten percentage points, which is easily the biggest drop. Here’s that list:
Drops in O-Swing%, 2013-2014
- Yasiel Puig, -10.3 percentage points
- Kurt Suzuki, -7.9
- Adam LaRoche, -7.8
- Trevor Plouffe, -7.6
- Dayan Viciedo, -7.1
- Tyler Flowers, -7.1
- Scooter Gennett, -6.9
- Danny Espinosa, -6.7
- Shin-Soo Choo, -6.6
- DJ LeMahieu, -6.5
Here’s where we are now. Yasiel Puig has an average swing rate, and a below-average O-Swing rate. Just one year ago, Puig was a guy thought to be exploitable because he was willing to swing at anything. Of course, he still got his results, but it seemed like a dangerous, volatile approach. So now Puig has tightened up his own zone, and while this is something we always talk about certain players needing to do, it’s also one of the hardest things in baseball to just suddenly make yourself more disciplined. Puig has made it a reality, and not even by just a little. He’s a batter, now, with an eye.
During the PITCHf/x era, the biggest season-to-season O-Swing% drop is about 13 percentage points, for 2012-2013 Shane Robinson. Young Pablo Sandoval shows up on the list, as does young Jose Altuve, and then you have older Nick Punto and older Jonny Gomes. Puig is one of six guys, for the moment, with a double-digit drop, and the rest of his game hasn’t suffered, which is another key point. Sometimes it’s hard to change an approach without also changing the swing and the swing results. Puig is still clobbering the ball — he’s just clobbering a greater relative frequency of strikes.
So where has Puig been more disciplined? The answers are both predictable and remarkable. According to Baseball Savant, a year ago, Puig swung at almost half of all pitches located low and/or away, out of the zone. This year, he’s at one out of three. Additionally, last year, Puig swung at about 35% of pitches in off the plate, while this year, he’s around 23%. After swinging at one out of four pitches at least a foot in, this season he’s chopped that in half. Basically, Puig’s been less willing to get jammed, and he’s been less willing to go fish, and so while weaknesses remain, they’re more difficult to locate.
One wonders if, as a consequence, Puig is starting to look more to left and left-center. When he’d swing at anything, he needed to use the whole field. Let’s look at just a few more numbers:
2013: 22% hits to opposite field
2013: 31% extra-base hits to opposite field
The samples are too small to do much with, but while Puig has demonstrated his ability to take the ball to right, it could be he’s becoming more of a pull threat now that he’s given himself a tighter zone. So maybe pitchers will try to pitch him more away, and maybe that means he’ll return to right field, or maybe that means he’ll just draw a lot more walks. We don’t know where this Puig is going to go, because we didn’t expect this Puig to ever really exist, after the way he looked as a rookie.
“I think more and more of Yasiel as an RBI guy,” manager Don Mattingly said in a reversal of his Spring Training opinion. “He’s become more patient and getting more strikes. Last year he was more emotional. He’s quit chasing, made adjustments.”
Mattingly said that Puig has been helped by a game within a game he plays with Adrian Gonzalez to see who gets on base more during a series.
More patient, more strikes, quit chasing, made adjustments. He says it like it’s an easy thing to do. It’s an obvious thing to do, but a player generally is what a player is, and it’s hard to just change an approach on the fly. Puig’s pulled it off without sacrificing any of his productivity, and while we can still question the sustainability of his hit rate, it looks like we no longer have to question the dual sustainability of his over-aggressive tendencies. It turns out that Yasiel Puig can change. It’s not even totally clear that he needed to, but there’s nothing wrong with getting better, even if you’re already great. You can see why the Dodgers are so intent on getting Puig to maximize his ability — a maximized, optimal Puig is a Puig that can’t be stopped.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.