The Ever-Enigmatic Yasiel Puig

Yasiel Puig can still provide a spark or two of electricity when needed. In fact, the 27-year-old right fielder put forth quite a jolt this past weekend, doing some of the best work of his career in two of the Dodgers’ biggest wins this season. On Friday night in St. Louis, he punctuated a taut pitchers’ duel between Walker Buehler and Jack Flaherty with a pair of solo homers that bookended the scoring in a 3-0 victory. On Saturday afternoon, he hit three more jacks, two of them of the three-run variety, in a 17-4 rout. The wins allowed the Dodgers to catch and overtake both the Cardinals in the NL Wild Card race and the Rockies in the NL West race, and while Sunday’s loss to St. Louis undid both, Puig and company beat the Rockies on Monday night to retake the division lead.

You like dingers? Of course you do. Here’s the supercut of Puig’s five, which came at the expense of Flaherty, Tyler Webb (no, not that guy), John Gant, Mike Mayers and Luke Weaver:

It remains to be seen how the Dodgers’ season ends up, but as Puig goes, the 2018 campaign has been a fairly calm one, largely devoid of the drama of years past. Fewer complaints about his overly aggressive baserunning or lack of interest in the cut-off man. No reports of tardiness. No teammates ripping him anonymously through the media. No benchings or trips to the minors. He did get suspended for two games last month for brawling with the Giants’ Nick Hundley — an episode which brought forth the usual performative pomposity from the pastime’s moral guardians — but that has been the exception this season, not the rule.

He’s still demonstrative, of course, showing off his tongue now and then, licking his bat, admiring his homers when he hits them, and even kissing hitting coach Turner Ward afterwards. The epic bat flips, and the controversies attached to them — to his, specifically, not to the inane culture war that surrounds bat flips in general — appear to be a thing of the past.

Fortunately for the Dodgers, the home runs are not. Puig’s 21 dingers are the second-highest total of his career, after last year’s 28. Yes, for all of the attention he’s received, he’s topped 20 homers just twice in six seasons, and it took a record-tying outburst to reach that plateau this year. Puig is the 31st player to total five home runs across a two-game span. (Ralph Kiner and Mark McGwire both did it twice.) He’s the second Dodger to do so, after Shawn Green on May 23-24, 2002, and the first player in the majors to do it since the Red Sox’ Mookie Betts on May 31-June 1, 2016. It’s cool company

Thanks to his outburst, Puig finished the weekend hitting .270/.332/.500, good for a 125 wRC+. His slugging percentage is at its highest mark since Puig’s 2013 rookie season, while his wRC+ is the best he’s recorded since 2014. His numbers are even better since he served a 10-day stint on the disabled list from April 29 through May 8 for a left hip pointer and a bruised left foot. The former was caused by a collision with the wall in the right-field corner of AT&T Park in the service of a spectacular catch, the latter by his own foul ball in the same game. The absence allowed him to restart his season on a higher note following a dreadful April:

Yasiel Puig Hits the Reset Button on 2018
Thru April 28 96 0 .193 .250 .250 40 .229 .299
Since May 9 311 21 .294 .357 .578 152 .396 .381
Statistics through September 16.

That slugging percentage and wRC+ would both rank first or second in the National League if they weren’t weighted down by the ugly month that preceded them. As you can see from the Statcast numbers in the two columns to the far right, Puig may have had a bit of bad luck in that early stretch — Puig “should have” produced a wOBA about 70 points higher in April — but it’s also true that he’s done a better job of elevating the ball since then. His ground-ball rate has dropped from 45.7% to 41.6%, and his average launch angle has climbed form 9.5 degrees to 13.4, all of which offset a lower average exit velocity (from 92.2 mph to 88.5).

For as strong as Puig’s numbers have been since the injury, he remains something of an incomplete player — and no, it’s not because he airmails the occasional throw or runs into a few too many outs. For some reason, this chiseled, five-tool human highlight reel has become a pushover against left-handed pitching. This year, Puig’s hitting .218/.283/.387 for an 81 wRC+ in 138 PA against lefties, compared to .298/.358/.559 for a 149 wRC+ in 269 PA against righties. He had a similarly drastic split last year (.183/.317/.275, 61 wRC+ against lefties, .288/.355/.554, 136 wRC+ against righties), though he had been above average against them in his first four years in the majors:

Weird, huh? Anything can happen in a small enough sample size, and amid a solid postseason showing against lefties — including three walks against the Cubs’ Jon Lester and Brian Duensing in Game Three of the NLCS, manager Dave Roberts thought the problem was a thing of the past, saying, “Part of it is, the lefties were pitching him in and out, front to back, and then it became mental, to be honest… He hit against right-handed pitching and thrived. But the lefty, he couldn’t figure it out, we couldn’t figure it out and it became mental. I think we crossed that hurdle.”

Alas, not so much. Puig’s slump against southpaws now encompasses 283 PA over the past two seasons. Among the 131 right-handed hitters with at least 200 PA against pitchers from each side, he has the largest reverse split of them all:

Right-Handed Batters with Largest Reverse Platoon Splits, 2017-18
Player Team PA vs LHP wRC+ PA vs RHP wRC+ Dif
Yasiel Puig Dodgers 283 71 693 141 -70
Starling Marte Pirates 216 58 677 114 -56
Rhys Hoskins Phillies 205 113 607 148 -35
Orlando Arcia Brewers 208 48 666 78 -30
Carlos Gomez TEX/TBR 225 76 590 105 -29
Maikel Franco Phillies 280 67 799 96 -29
Mike Trout Angels 242 166 832 193 -27
Trey Mancini Orioles 334 86 833 112 -26
Randal Grichuk STL/TOR 238 86 628 111 -25
Khris Davis Athletics 320 114 940 137 -23
200 PA minimum vs. both lefties and righties across 2017-2018 period.

Very weird, even if Trout is on that leaderboard. By comparison, from 2013 to -16, Puig had a 136 wRC+ against righties (1,962 PA), and 112 against lefties (766 PA). He’s gone from being a threat against pitchers of either hand to being elite against righties and sub-replacement against lefties. What’s more, Puig’s collapse against southpaws is founded in a sudden failure to hit their four-seam fastballs. One of those things is not like the others:

Puig vs. Four-Seam Fastballs
Period Hand Count % AB AVG SLG Whiff%
2013-16 R 1607 33.3% 345 .275 .458 13.9%
2013-16 L 759 41.5% 159 .270 .447 12.9%
2017-18 R 1111 40.8% 205 .283 .517 8.7%
2017-18 L 487 42.0% 106 .160 .217 8.8%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

I just can’t wrap my head around that. For most players, hitting fastballs from pitchers of the opposite hand is their bread and butter. In a season where the major-league batting average is just .248, for example, the pool of all right-handed hitters is hitting .262 against four-seam fastballs from lefties.

While he’s utterly helpless against heat from that side — just one of this year’s 21 homers has come via a lefty fastball — the latter-day Puig is still demolishing sinkers and breaking balls against pitchers of both hands, with slugging percentages above .500 for 2017-18 combined. He’s also scuffling against changeups from lefties lately, with a .200 AVG/.280 SLG in 50 at-bats for 2017-18, compared to .222/.424 in 99 at-bats from 2013-2016. One thing to be said is that lefties have done a better job of keeping the heater out of the center of the zone over the past two years, putting more of them on the inner third:

Fastballs aside, if there’s good news, it’s that Puig’s post-DL uptick, which lasted through an additional 19-day absence in July due an oblique strain, has included a more passable performance against lefties, in the form of a .234/.305/.436 (99 wRC+) showing in 105 PA. Given their outfield depth and flexibility — six players with 211 to 433 PA as outfielders, three of whom (Cody Bellinger, Enrique Hernández, and Chris Taylor) have also seen substantial time in the infield — the Dodgers have taken to platooning him recently, with Matt Kemp drawing five straight starts, and seven out of the past 11, against lefties.

All things considered, however, Puig is in about as good a place as he’s been with the Dodgers in a while, his value rebuilt from the nadir it reached in late 2016, when he was optioned to Triple-A Oklahoma City for a month. Though his seven-year, $42 million contract will be up this winter, he’s still got one more year of club control remaining, and the team doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to relocate him. That could change once the free agent free-for-all begins this winter, especially if the Dodgers pursue Bryce Harper, but for the moment, Puig is their guy, warts and all a crucial part of their lineup as they pursue a sixth straight NL West title.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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4 years ago

I love that Mike Trout’s wRC+ against lefties is still higher than anyone else on that table against righties.

4 years ago
Reply to  BenZobrist4MVP

That’s my biggest takeaway from this article. That’s insane and just made me laugh out loud because it’s so ridiculous.

4 years ago
Reply to  BenZobrist4MVP

Every article is secretly a Mike Trout article if you look hard enough. This is because Mike Trout is Baseball

4 years ago
Reply to  BenZobrist4MVP

Since he became an everyday major leaguer, Trout has had exactly one MONTH with a wRC+ below 100. That came in August of 2015, when his wRC+ was 99.