Is Yasiel Puig Ready for the Bright Lights, Pressure of the MLB Playoffs?
On deck is the season finale of the thrilling new drama that's gripped the nation: "Puigmania: The Puigtastical Journey of Yasiel Puig."
In Episode I, the mysterious young hero burst onto the scene with the Los Angeles Dodgers and started destroying baseballs and sharpshooting baserunners. In Episode II, the young hero was dealt a reality check and began to rub some people the wrong way with his brash style, earning him a reputation in some circles as more of an anti-hero than a true hero. He's no Superman. He's Wolverine!
Episode III is up next, and all we know is the premise. It is to be Puig in the postseason, baseball's ultimate stage. We know not how it will end. Will the young hero thrive? Or will he crumble?
OK, we can get serious now. I started things off on the silly side because I wanted to make it somewhat clear off the bat that I'm not here to do what the headline might suggest. I'm not here to indulge in Puig bashing. It's a thing, but not my thing.
The question at hand, however, is one worth asking because...well, consider the following.
Puig hit .305/.381/.477 in his first 52 games. In those, the Dodgers went a ridiculous 40-12. But in 23 September games, Puig has only hit .231/.341/.487. The Dodgers' record: 10-13.
It's not all Puig's fault that the Dodgers have had a mediocre month. Nor, indeed, are his numbers all that bad. But he has definitely slipped, and that the team has also slipped makes the following deduction out to be fair game: The Dodgers are better when Puig is better.
So he better be ready for the postseason. The Dodgers need him to be.
Since I want to keep the psychoanalysis at a minimum here, let's let a few numbers have their say about Puig's postseason readiness. That's a process that starts with taking a look at how he's performed against the clubs the Dodgers could come up against in October.
Pretty good, actually. Here's a nifty table, with numbers courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com:
If you're in the dark about ISO, that's Isolated Power. It's basically a slugging percentage that ignores singles, hence the reason Puig's ISO against the Pirates is zero. He didn't have any extra-base hits against them in his 13 plate appearances.
But against the Braves, Cardinals and Reds, Puig did well. It's a good thing that his numbers are particularly strong against Atlanta and St. Louis, as the Dodgers will be playing either one of them in the National League Division Series.
So yeah, encouraging stuff.
To an extent, anyway.
The big caveats should be obvious. One is the small number of plate appearances. It's nice that Puig has done well against the upcoming competition, but the small sample sizes make it hard to project success while wearing a straight face.
The other big caveat: The postseason isn't the regular season. It's a different animal, one that lures possible prey into a high-pressure environment, weakens them and then feeds. Some players are immune to the pressure. Others aren't.
This is a harder topic to tackle from statistical perspective. To my knowledge, the dweebs at the Sabermetric Research Facility have yet to come up with a way to quantify a player's guts. Maybe GARP (Guts Above Replacement Player) will be a thing someday, but it's not now.
The best we have are leverage stats, which of course are designed to tell us how well players have performed in low-, mid- and high-pressure situations. They're not terribly predictive, but they're the kind of stats that can give us the lowdown on how clutch players have (or haven't) been.
Unfortunately, pressure has not agreed with Puig during his rookie season.
Here's a table, with data courtesy of FanGraphs:
In low-leverage situations, Puig has thrived. There's been less ownage in medium-leverage situations, but he's still been a highly productive player.
But in high-leverage situations? Not so good. Puig's production has crumbled, and that strikeout rate is a doozy.
Puig's issues in late and close situations are part of the problem. Per Baseball-Reference.com, he's hitting .200 with a .284 OBP in such situations, with a 37.3 strikeout percentage to boot. The one good thing to be said is that he has a .233 ISO in late and close situations, so suffice it to say he's more or less the definition of "hit or miss" when the pressure is at its highest.
That Puig hasn't performed in pressure situations could be coincidence, in which case there's no point in seeing these numbers as signs of an inevitable tragic end to his season.
But then there's the possibility that these stats are a symptom of something more real than coincidence. They could be confirmation that Puig tries to do too much when the heat is on.
I've gotten the sense in watching him over the months that this is a real issue with him. And while we're admittedly straying into psychoanalysis now, I don't feel like insinuating that Puig's focus has a tendency to wander in pressure situations requires that big of a leap.
That's because the guy's focus tends to wander, period.
That's not still a secret at this point, right? Puig's been a live wire since the moment he first stepped between the lines back in June. And for all the electricity he's provided, he's also provided his share of facepalm-worthy moments. Ugly at-bats. Bad throws. Baserunning blunders. Et cetera.
Since Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles nailed them in her recent (and quite good) piece on Puig, I'll let her do the honor of asking the questions that come to mind:
The Dodgers have but one question: Can they trust [Puig] come playoff time?
'You don't want to break his spirit,' Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. 'I love the way he plays. But you don't want it to end up costing us later.'
What if, in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, Puig ignores the cutoff man, tries to throw out a guy he has very little chance of getting at third base, and the ball skips away and into the stands, allowing the runner to score? What if that's the difference in the game, the series?
This stuff should sound familiar if you've read any "WHAT ARE THE DODGERS GOING TO DO ABOUT PUIG?!" columns. Seemingly all of them questioned whether his recklessness could be cured before it hurt the Dodgers.
It was easy to roll one's eyes at the time. But with the postseason looming and the Dodgers having come violently back down to earth in September, it's not so easy now. Puig has failed to become a fundamentally sound ballplayer overnight at any point during the season. He's not going to do so now just because the timing is convenient. It's fair to expect there to be some, ahem, episodes in October.
Puig does, however, have one redeeming quality when it comes to his episodes: He has a tendency to make up for them.
The video above this text? That's of a pinch-hit homer Puig hit in a game against the Miami Marlins back in August. If it doesn't ring a bell, this would be the same game for which he was initially benched by Mattingly after he showed up late.
Remember the next time Puig was benched? That was a little later in the month when Mattingly got fed up with Puig's demeanor in a game against the Chicago Cubs and decided to replace him with Skip Schumaker midway through the proceedings.
The next time Puig played, he went 4-for-5 with a double and an RBI.
More recently, did you see Puig get picked off by Miguel Montero a couple of weeks ago? A small moment in the grand scheme of Puigmania, but it's worth noting he later went on to hit a home run in what was a three-hit day.
I'm sure there are instances that are slipping my mind, but this is Puig for you. The bad stuff has happened, and then the good stuff has had a tendency to come and wash it away.
This is mainly because Puig is a talented ballplayer. Talented ballplayers are going to do good things more often than they're going to do bad things (see also: those numbers in low- and medium-leverage situations).
But these things have happened also because Puig is a talented major league ballplayer.
That emphasis is an important one to make, as there's a long list of players who can vouch that talent alone isn't a guaranteed ticket to success in the majors. The ability to adjust and bounce back are of paramount importance, and Puig has shown that he has both—Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus did a great piece on Puig's ability to adjust that's worth your time.
Is Yasiel Puig ready to thrive in the 2013 playoffs?
If Puig didn't have these abilities, he would have been back in the minors weeks ago.
I therefore suppose the "thick-skinned" label fits him well enough. As distressing as his mental errors and his struggles in pressure situations are with the postseason just around the corner, this is a guy who's had an excellent rookie season for a big-market, high-profile team with the spotlight on him from day one.
Oh, and he's only 22. Oh, and he was even younger when he fled his home country, pursuing whatever means necessary to eventually find the spotlight in which he's thrived.
I'm not without doubts when it comes to Puig. The next day I am will be the first.
But even with those doubts...Yeah, I think he can handle October.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.
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