The Same Old Yasiel Puig

It’s strange to say for a player who has been a magnet for controversy for most of his major league career, but Yasiel Puig has had a pretty quiet 2019. It’s likely you know two things about his season so far. First, he was pressing to start the season, swinging at far more pitches than usual and getting poor results to show for it. Through June 9th, in fact, Puig had a 58 wRC+. Second, Puig fought Pirates. Not in a curse-you-Jack-Sparrow way, either — the still of his one-man brawl against the Pirates was the image of the early season.

After that, you’d be forgiven for thinking Puig and the Reds might just fade into obscurity for the rest of the year. As of that June 9th date I selected up above, Puig had been worth -.6 WAR on the year, and the Reds were eight games out of first in the NL Central. But a funny thing happened on the way to playing out the string: the Reds, and Puig, played themselves back into contention as the rest of the NL Central fell apart.

If you look at Puig’s stats right this minute, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. He has a 101 wRC+ on the year and has been worth exactly 1 WAR in just over half of a season. That sounds like a roughly average player. But here’s the thing: we’re barely a month past June 9th. Puig, as you’ll recall, had been worth -.6 WAR up to that point. In the past month, Puig has been a house on fire. How has he done it? He’s gotten back to being Puig.

It isn’t hard to picture peak Yasiel Puig. He’s a whirling dervish, doing everything at 110 mph and with childlike delight to boot. In his statline, that manifested with a little of everything. Above-average BABIP and ISO, decent walk and strikeout numbers, and the occasional dumb baserunning season (Puig’s 2017 was worth a staggering -7.6 BsR?). Sounds like Puig to me. He accomplished all that with an aggressive profile at the plate, swinging more frequently than overall league average in every year of his career except one.

It’s clear that Puig was pressing to start the year, but just how much was he pressing? Well, he was swinging at just under 60% of the pitches he saw over his first 25 games. How aggressive is that? Take a look at the five most aggressive swingers for the full season, and consider that Puig isn’t a high-contact guy like Jeff McNeil or Hanser Alberto:

Most Aggressive Hitters, 2019
Player Swing% Contact% SwStr% K%
Jonathan Schoop 58.7 69.4 18.0 24.3
Jeff McNeil 58.3 81.7 10.7 11.9
Tim Anderson 58.1 77.5 13.1 21.0
Kevin Pillar 57.7 82.1 10.3 14.5
Hanser Alberto 57.7 85.4 8.4 9.8

Obviously slicing things up into small samples will create more extreme readings, but Puig’s sudden aggression was clearly an outlier. Through the end of April, only Jonathan Schoop and Jorge Alfaro were swinging more frequently than him:

Most Aggressive Hitters, April 2019
Player Swing% Contact% SwStr% K%
Jonathan Schoop 60.1 68.5 19 20.8
Jorge Alfaro 59.8 61.8 22.8 37.3
Yasiel Puig 58.7 74.1 15.2 25.5
Josh Harrison 58.1 72.2 16.2 19.2
Tim Anderson 58 77.9 12.8 21.2

That’s too many swings, and it led to a grisly 25.5% strikeout rate paired with a minuscule 4.7% walk rate. The immediate counter didn’t exactly work, either. Over the next month and change, he cranked his swing rate back down to 53% — still higher than his career average, but a significant change. Still, nothing was working — he posted an even higher 26.3% strikeout rate, only partially offset by a 6.6% walk rate.

If swinging a lot wasn’t working and swinging less didn’t fix it, we’re looking at a real problem here. It would be easy to look at this data and see Puig as done. Changing his swing rate back down didn’t seem to do anything. Maybe his career-long contact struggles (13% SwStr rate and 74% contact rate) caught up to him this year. Maybe pitchers were always going to figure him out. Maybe the Dodgers traded him just in time. Maybe — wait, Puig has a 200 wRC+ since June 9th? We’re going to need a new explanation.

If the amount of swings isn’t the issue, what else could it be? Well, it’s not only how often you swing, it’s how often you connect when you swing, and Puig simply didn’t have it early in the year. Through June 9th, he was whiffing on 29% of the fastballs he swung at. As you might imagine, that’s poor — third-worst in the majors (behind Christian Walker and Eduardo Escobar) over that timeframe. He didn’t make up for it by doing a lot of damage on contact, either — his .297 wOBA on plate appearances ending in a fastball was fifth-worst in baseball over that span.

How do you miss so many fastballs? Like the curious case of Wil Myers, this can’t be solved by swinging at bad pitches. Puig’s chase rate of 30% on fastballs wasn’t good, per se, but it wasn’t extreme — the league swings at around 25% of such pitches. The problem was a lot more straightforward: he was just missing. Swinging under a 90-mph center-cut fastball when you have the platoon advantage isn’t a good look:

As a side note, I love the little look down at the bat afterwards, like he’s checking for a hole the ball might have gone through.

Taking an aggressive swinger and adding contact issues is a recipe for disaster, and that seems to be what happened in Puig’s case. Look at his swing rates and whiff rates by pitch type before and after my arbitrary June 9th cutoff, and you can see that the amount of contact he was making simply wasn’t going to cut it:

Puig’s Swing% and Whiff% by Pitch Type
Date Fastball Swing% Fastball Whiff% Breaking Swing% Breaking Whiff% Offspeed Swing% Offspeed Whiff%
To June 9 55.8 29.2 53.7 43.2 55.6 40.0
Post-June 9 54.5 17.6 58.4 32.7 57.6 36.8

More contact on every type of pitch is a good way to avoid strikeouts, but it’s easier said than done. I can tell myself a narrative about the fastballs — Puig started swinging at a few less of them, so that the worst of his swings were discarded, and his contact rate improved as if by magic. The breaking ball story looks a little more complicated, though. He’s swinging more and missing less? Neat trick!

As it turns out, this is a question of zones. Puig has always been an excellent breaking ball hitter, particularly on pitches in the zone: for his career, he’s produced a .498 wOBA when he puts a breaking ball in the strike zone into play. Want some context, given that that’s an aribtrary number? Here are the top five hitters since 2008 by this metric:

Best Breaking Ball Hitters, 2008-2019
Player wOBA At Bats
Mike Trout 0.524 527
Giancarlo Stanton 0.518 731
Javier Baez 0.506 369
Mike Napoli 0.502 536
Yasiel Puig 0.498 467

Oh. So what we’re seeing is that Puig should put more of these balls into play. Got it.

With that in mind, consider this. Through June 9th, Puig swung at 61.6% of in-zone breaking balls, in the 45th percentile of major leaguers. That’s not ideal for literally one of the best breaking ball hitters of the last 10 years. When he did swing, he was swinging at hooks out of the zone; his out-of-zone swing rate was in the 96th percentile (higher being more swings). That’s a bad combination, because no one hits out-of-zone breaking balls well.

Since June 9th, Puig has flipped the script. In-zone breaking balls? He’s in the 81st percentile for swings now, at 76.2%. He’s swinging less often out of the zone, too: down to the 84th percentile, 42.6% as compared to 48% beforehand. That’s a change so extreme it deserves a graphic:

To my eyes, Puig made two changes. He started swinging less at fastballs, which is not unreasonable given that it seemed he was over-swinging at some and creating contact issues for himself. He also went back to what made him Puig: tremendous aggression on pitches he can punish. It’s completely changed the way pitchers approach him.

Early in the year, there was almost no wrong way to pitch Puig. Fastballs? He’d swing and miss at them. If you threw him a breaking ball outside the zone, he might chase — he was one of the worst in baseball at that, after all. Miss and leave it in the zone, and he wasn’t sufficiently aggressive to punish you. In the past month, however, he hasn’t been kind to pitchers throwing breaking balls. He’s reined in his chase rate, sure, but the real problem is what happens when you leave one up. Before, you might get away with it. Now, one of the premier zone-spin hitters of our era is taking his hacks. Miss at your own peril.

Pitchers haven’t caught on yet. They threw Puig 21.3% breaking pitches until June 9th, but they have dialed up the frequency to 27.8% since then. This has been particularly ill-timed, because Puig’s results have gone asymptotic. In the first chunk of the season, he produced a .198 wOBA on plate appearances ending in breaking balls, the result of too many chases out of the zone and not enough good hacks at easier ones. Since then, he’s at an Icarus-before-the-wax-melted level .672 wOBA on appearances that end in breakers. Hey pitchers — you might want to change your plans.

With any number that absurd, you can bet there’s some luck involved. Indeed, some of his production increase has been driven by BABIP — he’s posted a mouth-watering .377 BABIP over the past month, compared to .264 before then. Still, Puig’s xwOBA on plate appearances ending in breaking balls is up 180 points. His strikeout rate has plummeted as he’s gotten in less bad counts by swinging more at pitches he should try to hit. He’s eighth in xwOBA among qualified batters over this stretch. Chalking his improvement up to luck would be a mistake.

In one sense, it doesn’t matter what Puig does the rest of the season. The Reds probably won’t make the playoffs (we give them a 10% chance), and Puig isn’t getting any awards votes given how poorly he started the season. Looked at another way, though, this is exactly what Cincinnati needed. This time last year, the team was dead in the water and unexciting. This year, they’re playing meaningful games with one of the most dynamic, fun-loving players in baseball leading the charge. All it took was going back to what had already worked.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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As a Reds fan who watches them play nearly everyday, I can also tell you that (mechanically) he has drastically reduced his leg kick. Compare these clips to the one posted in the article. Perhaps “getting his foot down” earlier, so to speak, has improved his ability to make contact, and hit it with authority.

Videos from June 16th, June 19th, and July 3rd: