Comparing MLB Phenom Yasiel Puig to a Young Vladimir Guerrero

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Comparing MLB Phenom Yasiel Puig to a Young Vladimir Guerrero
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

What would happen if ManBearPuig met a young Vlad the Impaler?

Easy. I suspect they'd find that they have much in common.

Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig has been up with the Los Angeles Dodgers for a full month now, and we're still waiting for him to give us reasons to pump the breaks on Puigmania. In fact, he seems to achieve new levels of ridiculous every time he takes the field.

But Puig is not quite a never-before-seen specimen. While they're not carbon-copies of one another, there are a few things about Puig that bring to mind memories of Vladimir Guerrero when he was just starting out with the Montreal Expos in the late 1990s.

How are they similar? Oh, let us count the ways.

 

Shut Up and Swing: On Patience (or a Lack Thereof)

Jose L Marin/Getty Images

Call it the "Moneyball effect." Whatever it is, today's baseball culture frowns on free-swingers. In the last decade or so, people both in and around the game have become more aware that it's very much in hitters' interests to be as patient as can be.

But occasionally, you have guys who get away with being shameless free-swingers. Sometimes, there's just no arguing with results.

That was certainly the case with Guerrero earlier in his career. The rest of it, too, for that matter. It's also the case with Puig now. You can (and should) doubt that his .443/.473/.745 batting line is going to last, but there's no denying its existence.

How aggressive is Puig now at the age of 22 compared to Guerrero at the age of 22, you ask?

Well, let's see. If we were to compare the key patience numbers of Puig's 2013 season to the key patience numbers of Guerrero's 1997 season, we'd get a table that looks like this:

Player Year P/PA Swing% First-Pitch Swing% Contact%
 Guerrero  1997  3.04  59  43  81
 Puig  2013   3.25  56 41 70

Links go to Baseball-Reference.com.

Puig is taking more pitches per plate appearance and swinging at fewer pitches than Guerrero was in '97, but they're in generally the same ballpark in both areas. The only area in which their numbers are really different is in contact percentage. Guerrero may have been hacking away, but he was making his fair share of contact.

The same can't be said of Puig. His contact rate of 70 percent is well below the league average of 78 percent, according to Baseball-Reference.com, and it's not an accident. 

Per Baseball Info Solutions, by way of FanGraphs, Puig swings at over 40 percent of the pitches he sees outside of the strike zone. When he does, he's only making contact about 60 percent of the time.

That's the kind of thing that makes you scratch your head and say, "So...why doesn't he suck, then?"

It's simple: Puig doesn't let his swing-and-miss tendency hurt him in the one way it could.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Puig may take a ton of hacks, but he's not striking out an absurd amount of the time. He's struck out in 19.6 percent of his plate appearances. According to FanGraphs, that's a couple ticks below the league-average of 19.8 percent.

Because plate discipline data only goes back so far, we don't know how often Guerrero was expanding the strike zone earlier in his career. What we do know is that he also didn't strike out more than he should have been. He struck out in roughly 11 percent of his plate appearances in 1997. Per FanGraphs, the league average that season was 17.1 percent.

Given that Guerrero made more contact and struck out less often earlier in his career than Puig is now, yeah, it's fair to say that he was the "better" free-swinger between the two. There was more of a method to his madness than there was to Puig's.

But then there's this: Just as there was no safe place to pitch Guerrero, there's no safe place to pitch Puig.

 

Don't Go There, There or There: Plate Coverage and Oppo Poppo

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Most young hitters come into the league with a weakness in their plate coverage. Some kids can be beaten inside or outside, up or down, whatever. You know how it is.

But every once in a while, guys like Guerrero and Puig come along.

Guerrero made it pretty clear very early on that there was no pitch he couldn't hit. Just take a look at the pitch he got his first career home run on:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

Here's a better look at that pitch's location:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

That fastball, which looked to be easily in the mid-90s, was going to be at Guerrero's knees a few inches off the outside part of the plate had it found the catcher's mitt. That's a tough pitch to hit, yet Guerrero made good use of his freakishly long arms and poked it over the right field fence.

Thus the stage was set for the kind of hitter Guerrero was to become. While we unfortunately don't have any highlight videos of him hitting all sorts of pitches to different parts of the yard when he was younger, we do have highlights of him hitting for the cycle in 2003.

Be sure to note the location of the pitches while you're watching this:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

If you didn't note the locations, don't worry. Allow me:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

That image is Guerrero in a nutshell. The only safe place to pitch him was in the dirt.

And even then...

As for Puig, all you really need in order to be sold on his plate coverage is this video:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Once again, here's a better look:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

That was the third slider in a row Puig had seen in that at-bat. He had swung-and-missed at the first two and looked horrible doing so. He should have looked horrible swinging and missing at the third, too, but instead, he knocked if off the end of the bat and gave it just enough of a jolt to squirt it into left field.

If you're not convinced, just know that hitting outside pitches is actually something of a specialty for Puig. I can't re-post it here, but The Big Lead has a GIF of Puig's first seven home runs this season. Go check it out, and what you'll see is that all seven of the pitches he hit were on the outside part of the plate.

It wasn't on the outside part of the plate, but the pitch he hit for his eighth home run of the season on Tuesday in Colorado at least stayed away from the inner part of the plate:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

And a better look:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Puig had to reach for this ball a little bit, but he still managed to get it on the fat part of the bat and drive it 451 feet (see HitTrackerOnline.com) out to right-center field.

That this ball went out to the right side of center field is typical of Puig, as he's shown an extraordinary amount of opposite-field power in his first month in the big leagues. According to FanGraphs, five of his eight home runs have qualified as oppo homers, and his ISO (isolated power) on balls to right field is an absurd .833.

Guerrero's early-career oppo power was none too shabby in its own right. You saw his first home run go out to right field, and Baseball-Reference.com says that the next three home runs of his career went out to right field as well.

That ended up being typical of Guerrero's power in that 1997 season. Per Baseball-Reference.com, he had a .383 ISO on balls to right field and an ISO below .200 for balls to center and left field.

Aggressiveness. The ability to hit anything. The ability to drive the ball the other way.

That pretty well covers the comparison between Puig and a young Guerrero from an offensive standpoint, but there's one other thing that Puig has that's reminiscent of Guerrero back in the day.

Hint: It's attached to his shoulder, and it's dangerous.

 

They've Got Guns: Arm Strength and the Will to Use It

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When Mike Rosenbaum, B/R's resident prospect guru, was addressing the ever-growing Puig hype during spring training, one thing he noted was that Puig was still a work in progress in the outfield.

He wrote:

Despite his impressive athleticism, Puig’s outfield defense may never be more than solid-average. As expected, his reads and routes are raw, and he hasn’t showcased the instincts in right field that he has at the dish.

So far, this sounds about right. Puig has made some nifty plays in right field, but the advanced fielding metrics don't quite know what to make of him yet. Puig does have two defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs, but also a minus-6.0 UZR/150.

But then there was this part of Rosenbaum's scouting report: "[Puig's] plus arm strength serves as his strongest defensive attribute and is ideal for a career in right field."

A month into Puig's big league career, we can safely say that this sounds about right, too.

As you'll recall, it was Puig's arm that stole the show in his major league debut:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

That's one of three outfield assists Puig already has, and he damn near pulled off the rare 9-1 putout a couple weeks ago at Yankee Stadium:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

A good word for Puig's arm strength is "tremendous." It's certainly one of the best in the league, which is saying something in a league that includes more than a few strong-armed outfielders.

As great as Puig's arm is, however, it's not what Guerrero's was in his youth and in his prime.

In case you've forgotten, the guy did this as a 22-year-old in 1997:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Guerrero started 84 games in right field in 1997, about half a season's worth of games. That was one of 10—yes, 10—outfield assists he had in that span. According to FanGraphs, the only other right fielders with at least 10 outfield assists that year all played in at least 120 games.

The next year in 1998, Guerrero logged another 10 outfield assists. He was up to 15 assists a couple years later in 2001, and one of those was one of the most ridiculous throws you're ever going to see:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

There's "tremendous," and then there's "legendary." There aren't many legendary arms in baseball history, but Guerrero's cannon is certainly one of them.

But Puig shouldn't be too hard on himself. His arm isn't on Guerrero's level, but it's closer to it than most arms you're going to come across in the outfield. Plenty of other guys would love to have a gun of his caliber.

You also have to think that Puig is the envy of a lot of other free-swingers around the league. There are plenty of guys who hack away like Vlad used to, but only Puig is hitting like he used to.

No, it's not going to last forever. Puig will cool down at the plate eventually, and clubs are going to stop testing his arm eventually. When it happens, the comparison to a young Guerrero is going to be moot and, in retrospect, quite silly. The joke shall be on me.

But because Puig doesn't seem to have any interest whatsoever in slowing down, the comparison between him and Vlad ought to have a darn good run.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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