The One Thing Holding Back Yasiel Puig

There’s so much to like about Yasiel Puig, and the season he’s having in 2017. He has a career-high rate of walks, and a career-low rate of strikeouts. He has a career-high isolated power, and he also has a career-high 12 stolen bases. He’s remained, for the most part, totally healthy, even on a team that makes liberal use of the disabled list, and Puig’s even got easy career-best marks in both defensive runs saved and UZR. In so many different ways, Puig’s game is looking more polished. Yet his WAR is simply a hair over 2.

There’s only one thing that has held back that number. I mean, all right, sure, Puig could stand to have a higher BABIP. He’d look better if he gathered some missing singles. But there’s just one area where Puig doesn’t look good. If you know how WAR is calculated, you’re probably one step ahead, but I should issue some quick background context. Some numbers around these parts have changed.

A few of you might’ve noticed some funny-looking baserunning numbers over the course of the summer. It’s nothing we tend to pay a whole lot of attention to, but especially on the team level, the numbers were looking atypically extreme. For that reason, I refrained from writing about said stats, but, quietly, the other day, a correction was put in place. The baserunning numbers should be normal now. The baserunning numbers should be trusted now. Yasiel Puig rates as one of the worst baserunners in baseball.

Our baserunning stat is BsR. You see it on the leaderboards. The BsR leader is Billy Hamilton. Of course it’s Billy Hamilton. The player in last is Asdrubal Cabrera. He’s around some of the usual names, like Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Kendrys Morales. But Puig is down there, tied for second-worst. The metric doesn’t like what Puig has done, and although it’s never claimed that Puig was excellent, this year looks like the career outlier. I don’t know how else to interpret this.

Let’s say you’re not totally convinced. Let’s say you’re hesitant to trust any formula that was just updated this week. Baseball Prospectus has its own baserunning stat. It thinks Puig has been way worse this season, too. And Baseball Reference has its own baserunning stat. Same page. So you could say there’s universal agreement: 2017 Puig has been an ineffective baserunner. What, then, is the story?

To make it all the more interesting, you might know that our baserunning stat is a combination of three sub-stats. Stolen bases make up one pillar, and this year, Puig has been a better basestealer than ever. He’s actually improved by some increment every year, since being a rookie. Despite that, Puig has still been a negative. He’s still been a negative, even though the Statcast sprint speeds don’t show him having significantly slowed down. The problems are elsewhere. The problems involve double plays, and baserunner advances.

The double plays are easy enough to analyze. You can look at Puig’s career rates of double plays, over double-play opportunities. Puig’s rate this year has skyrocketed. His rate is double what it was a season ago.

Puig, this season, has hit into a double play 22% of the time. The league average is 11%; Puig’s own average last year was 11%. The year before that, Puig hit into but one single double play. Now he’s tied for baseball’s fourth-highest total, one behind Tommy Joseph and Albert Pujols. Out of everyone with at least 50 double-play opportunities, Puig’s rate is the seventh-highest, and he’s got the fifth-biggest increase from a season ago. In that respect, he’s not, say, Matt Kemp, whose double plays are out of control, but you can have a problem without it being the biggest one around.

Part of this, I’m sure, is a fluke. Puig’s natural double-play rate couldn’t possibly be this high. But this season, with men on base, Puig has a career-low strikeout rate, a career-high pull rate, and a career-high grounder rate. Being a righty already gives him a slower start out of the box. The double plays have hurt, the Dodgers more broadly and Puig more specifically. This is part of the explanation.

Then you have the matter of advances. Baseball Reference makes this simple to analyze. It doesn’t show everything, but it does show how often a given player takes the extra base when he’s aboard for a hit. Like, say, going from first to third on a single. This year, the league-average rate is 39%. It’s held pretty steadily there for a while. Here is Puig’s career.

Puig this year is at 27%, which is half of where he was last summer. Historically, he’s always been around 50%, and the only player with a bigger drop from 2016 is Kevin Kiermaier, who’s fought lower-body issues. Puig has been a more conservative baserunner, yet at the same time, he’s run into a career-high rate of outs when trying to move up on a hit. Sometimes it’s just because a strong throw is made, and you’ve got a bang-bang play.

Other times, it’s not a bang-bang play.

One of the complicating factors is that baserunners don’t make all of their own decisions. They can’t control where the ball is hit, they can’t control who’s on base in front of them, and they can’t control the signal from the third-base coach. In that White Sox clip above, you might blame the coach for waving Puig around in the first place. Technically, Puig could’ve elected to stop if he wanted to. The runner is never entirely blameless. And it’s not like Puig hasn’t had to own his own mistakes. Puig ran into eight baserunning outs, combined, in 2015 – 2016. He’s at eight already in 2017, and this doesn’t count failed steals. Here’s a failed contact play.

And here’s a failed read of a different grounder.

The consolation, for me, is there’s almost no way this is a reflection of Puig’s actual new baserunning true-talent level. I can’t buy him as being as bad as Cabrera or Morales or Martinez. He’s so much faster, and so much more athletic, that he ought to end up with a greater rate of successes. Baserunning numbers, ideally, require a large sample of data to find their level, and Puig’s level is higher than this. He’ll take some more extra bases. He’ll come up with men on first and bounce into fewer double plays. Too many things to this point have gone wrong, too many to fully believe.

But, at least, that should explain why Puig’s WAR isn’t higher than the one that you see. Nearly everywhere, he’s taken a step forward. His baserunning performance, though, has ranked among the very worst. He ought to be able to shake that off, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

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.

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4 years ago

I went to go look at Puig’s sprint speed score after Jeff’s suggestion that he hasn’t tailed off, since the people who are at the bottom of the baserunning leaderboards are often the same ones as the guys at the bottom of the sprint score. Puig sits right there with Mookie Betts and Jose Ramirez, and about 5 ft/sec higher than the guy at the bottom (Pujols, who to be fair is way lower than Brian McCann below him).

So either Puig has had extraordinarily bad luck or he’s making a lot of bad decisions. Given who we’re talking about we can’t rule out the latter, but Jeff does make a convincing argument for the former.

Concerned Reader Johnmember
4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Could be a bit of both!

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

You have to wonder if it’s in his head a bit with people wanting him to be less aggressive