In Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig’s first 21 games, he hit .420/.453/.716 for an OPS of 1.170. While that window is admittedly an example of choosing arbitrary endpoints, it’s as good as any small sample at getting a point across. We all know that Puig had an insane first month; in his first 30 games, his OPS was 1.155. For the season-to-date, his OPS is still above 1.000—1.024, to be exact.
The 21-game mark was not an accidental choice, however. On June 25, Puig played his 21st game, and I published a second-half projection article in which I called his walk rate “famously low.” At that point, it was 3.7 percent.
Coincidentally also on June 25, Eno Sarris published an article on FanGraphs called “Selling High on Yasiel Puig” in which he expressed some concern about Puig’s absurdly low walk rate.
Sarris was not the only analyst to raise these issues; Zach Stoloff did so on NESN.com, Ray Flowers on BaseballGuys.com and Tristan Cockcroft on ESPN mentioned that “he has averaged just 3.24 pitches per plate appearances” up until the point that article was written (on July 3).
And everyone was correct in raising that concern.
Of the top 50 qualified hitters in baseball (according to FanGraphs’ wOBA), the only hitter with a walk rate below that 3.7 mark is Adam Jones' 3.1. Only two other batters are even with one full percentage point: Jean Segura (4.2 percent) and Torii Hunter (4.1 percent).
On the other hand, of the 50 worst qualified hitters, five have a walk rate below or equal to 3.7 percent: Alexei Ramirez (3.2), Alcides Escobar (3.3), Jeff Keppinger (3.7), Starlin Castro (3.7) and Salvador Perez (3.7), and another four are at or below Segura’s 4.2: JP Arencibia (3.8), Matt Dominguez (3.8), Erick Aybar (3.8) and Zack Cozart (4.2).
Granted, there is a slight confirmation bias in these numbers—wOBA heavily values on-base percentage, and walk rate is a main component of OBP (along with batting average). But OBP is a part of offensive production, so the point holds: It’s exceedingly difficult to succeed offensively with such a low walk rate.
Things have changed
Although it’s unlikely he heard the criticism, Puig’s walk rate has increased. Since June 26, his walk rate is 8.6 percent, and that has pushed his season rate up to 6.6 percent.
The number of players who succeed at that mark is far larger. Notables such as Adrian Beltre, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina have walk rates below 6.6.
At this point, we don’t really know what Puig’s true walk rate is; he just doesn’t have a long enough career for us to accurately determine it. But the improvements and changes he’s made have been real.
Puig has made tangible adjustments
Below is a table detailing his swing percentage at respective pitches in each month he’s been in the big leagues. As you can see, he has swung at fewer pitches as he has gotten more comfortable in the big leagues.
By itself, swing percentage doesn’t tell us much. Passivity is not the same as patience, and if Puig had been taking strikes just for the sake of taking pitches, then that would not be a good sign.
But, as the following two graphics show, Puig’s decline in swing percentage corresponds to a decline in pitches he’s seeing in the strike zone.
Puig will likely never be known as a patient hitter. Batters who demonstrate his kind of free-swinging mentality don’t change overnight into Joey Votto. But, he doesn’t need to put up a 15% walk rate to be productive. Just these slight increases are enough to take his swing rate from dangerous to acceptable.