Can Yasiel Puig help the Dodgers avoid elimination in Game 5 of the NLCS?
Yasiel Puig seemed destined to become a postseason hero when he stepped to the plate representing the tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.
However, the 22-year-old’s at-bat didn’t unfold as hoped.
Facing Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal, Puig put an end to a potential ninth-inning Dodger rally by harmlessly grounding into a 4-3 double play.
Though he failed to come through with the game on the line, Puig has been the Dodgers’ hottest hitter over the last two contests with four hits in his last eight plate appearances.
Having benefited from a high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) during the regular season, the natural inclination is to attribute Puig’s postseason turnaround to both luck and sample size. However, the reality is that after lackluster performances in Games 1 and 2 of the series, Puig’s hot streak is a result of adjustments he’s made at the plate.
And if the Dodgers hope to come back from their current 3-1 series deficit, they’ll need Puig to once again serve as the team’s offensive catalyst as he did during the regular season.
Season in Review
At the time of his promotion from Double-A Chattanooga to the major leagues on June 3, the Dodgers were last in the NL West with a 23-32 record and 7.5 games behind the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks.
With big-name players Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and Carl Crawford all missing time with respective injuries, Puig can be credited for the Dodgers’ dramatic turnaround this season. Following his arrival in early June, the 22-year-old outfielder took baseball by storm, batting .436/.467/.713 with 44 hits and seven home runs in his first month with the Dodgers.
According to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com, Puig was the first player since Joe DiMaggio in 1936 to collect 70-plus hits and 10-plus homers in his first 50 career games. More importantly, the Dodgers posted a 66-38 record in the 104 games in which he was in the lineup this season.
However, Puig’s production steadily regressed over the subsequent months, as his all-out style of play resulted in a slew of minor injuries. In September, he posted a season-worst .214 batting average and .333 on-base percentage over 26 games.
The right-handed hitter’s late-season struggles ended there, though.
In the Dodgers’ four-game elimination of the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS, Puig was virtually unstoppable at the plate, batting .471 with eight hits and five runs scored in 17 plate appearances. Unfortunately, the Cuban outfielder’s production dropped off with the start of the NLCS against the Dodgers, as he went a combined 0-for-10 with six strikeouts in Games 1 or 2 of the series.
But after reaching base in five of his last six plate appearances, Puig finally appears locked in at the plate. Now he just needs his teammates to follow suit.
Puig was held hitless in what turned out to be a grueling, 13-inning game won by the Cardinals, as he went 0-for-6 with two strikeouts. From the onset of the game, it was clear that the Cardinals were going to test Puig’s patience and plate discipline and, more importantly, force him to make in-game adjustments.
Puig, meanwhile, was pressing to make things happen early in the game (and series), which played right into the Cardinals’ game plan. In his six at-bats over the course of the marathon game, the right-handed hitter saw 27 pitches—17 fastballs and 10 breaking balls—from four different St. Louis hurlers. More significantly, they collectively avoided the strike zone when facing Puig, throwing 18 pitches (or 66.7 percent of the total pitches he saw) out of the strike zone, per Brooks Baseball, including seven that were low and away.
Things certainly didn’t get any better for Puig in Game 2, as he struck out in each of his four at-bats to record a dreaded postseason golden sombrero. Though he had nothing to show for it on paper, the quality of Puig’s at-bats were significantly better in Game 2.
In total, he saw 29 pitches across four at-bats: he had one six-pitch at-bat, two seven-pitch at-bats and one in which he saw nine pitches. However, he was unable to put the ball in play despite swinging at 13 pitches on the day.
After using a healthy mix of fastballs and breaking balls to neutralize him in the series opener, St. Louis pitchers (namely Michael Wacha) employed a different approach in Game 2 and attacked him with the fastball almost exclusively (79.3 percent of the time). But as was the case in Game 1, Puig’s plate discipline was challenged, as a majority (18-of-29) of the pitches that he saw were once again outside the strike zone.
Game 3 marked the first time in the series that Puig looked comfortable at the plate, suggesting that he had a genuine idea of how Cardinals pitchers might approach him. In his first at-bat against Adam Wainwright, Puig saw seven pitches (three fastballs, four curveballs) from the veteran right-hander before he was called out on strikes.
However, his NLCS drought finally came to an end in the fourth inning. After attacking him with mostly curveballs in his first time up to bat, Wainwright started Puig with back-to-back fastballs in his second at-bat. But after spitting on a tempting curveball in the dirt, Puig smoked a fastball off the right-field wall for an RBI triple.
In his final at-bat (also against Wainwright), Puig quickly fell behind in the count, 0-2, on back-to-back curveballs. However, the right-handed hitter didn’t bite on the next two offerings and ultimately singled to left field on a curveball.
The Cardinals once again tried to cash in on Puig’s over-aggressiveness in Game 3, throwing 13-of-16 pitches that registered outside of the strike zone. After taking 13 hacks in Game 2, Puig was more efficient at the plate Monday as he made contact (foul ball or ball in play) on five-of-six swings. More specifically, each of those pitches either fell in or just beyond the outer-third of the strike zone.
Puig’s hot bat carried over into Game 4 of the NLCS, as he went 2-for-3 with two singles and a walk. However, he was left stranded on the base paths by his teammates on each occasion.
In his first at-bat, Puig demonstrated an improved sense of patience by coaxing a five-pitch walk. Stepping to the dish again in the fourth inning, the outfielder put together another lengthy at-bat against Lance Lynn before hitting a single to center field on a 3-2 curveball.
In Puig’s third look at the Cardinal right-hander in the bottom of the sixth inning, he jumped on a 95 mph first-pitch fastball for an RBI single to center field.
Representing the game’s tying run when he stepped to the plate with a runner on in the bottom of the ninth inning, Puig quickly found himself in a hitters’ count when closer Trevor Rosenthal missed the zone with two consecutive fastballs. Knowing that the hard-throwing right-hander didn’t want to bring the go-ahead run to the plate, Puig seemed confident that the next pitch would be in the zone. While he was correct in that regard, the outfielder was chewed up by Rosenthal’s near-triple-digit fastball and weakly grounded into a 4-3 double play.
After figuring out that the Cardinals were attacking him with mostly secondary offerings off the plate over the first three games of the series, Puig clearly had an idea of what to expect in Game 4.
Compared to the previous games, St. Louis pitchers altered their collective approach so as to bust Puig with fastballs on the inner-half. However, they didn’t anticipate that Puig would make a counter-adjustment over the course of the game.
As you can see, each of Puig’s three swings on the day came against inside pitches, as he did an excellent job staying inside the ball and driving it back up the middle.
What This Evolution Means for 2014
As evidenced by his monthly splits during the regular season, Puig has been forced to modify his approach since arriving in the major leagues.
While the regular season offered Puig the opportunity to make adjustments over an extended period of time, the rookie quickly has learned about the unforgiving nature of a postseason series.
Even though his bat went ice-cold during the Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS, the fact that Puig was able to take what he learned about the Cardinal pitchers’ approach in those contests and apply it in Games 3 and 4 is a testament to his enormous potential.
Puig’s adjustments haven’t necessarily been the smoothest but, at the same time, how many other 22-year-old rookies are capable of adapting to major-league pitching on the fly?
Puig will always be viewed as an impact hitter; he’s shown the ability to change the outcome of a game in myriad ways even when mired in a deep slump. And once he develops a feel for making swifter adjustments against top-notch pitching, Puig should come close to reaching his ceiling as one of the best players in the game.