For as good as Yasiel Puig was in his rookie season, his generally wild style of play made it easy to wonder how effective he might be when (or if) he fined-tuned his raw talent.
One month into 2014, we're finding out.
If you haven't been keeping up with Puig—that is, what he's doing on the field rather than with all of the harrowing stories of his escape from Cuba—the Los Angeles Dodgers' young phenom closed April with 10 hits in his last 29 at-bats. And on the first day of May, getting him out proved to be difficult.
In the first game of a doubleheader against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field, Puig went 4-for-4 with a walk to help the Dodgers to a 9-4 win. In his 2-for-6 (plus a walk) outing in the Dodgers' 4-3 victory in the second game, Puig's two hits were singles in his first two trips to the plate.
Once that second single found paydirt, it had been a while since anybody last got Puig out. As Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register can vouch:
Yasiel Puig singles in 3rd. Has now reached base 7 times today, 9 consec times in Min. Maybe he is a cold-weather hitter and didn't know it?— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) May 2, 2014
Through his first 16 games of 2014, Puig was slashing a modest .241/.343/.414. Not to suggest the guy has any critics out there or anything, but those numbers were certainly supporting the notion that Puig was a one-year wonder waiting to happen.
But now? Things are looking up for Puig's 2014 numbers (via FanGraphs):
Puig's 2014 slash line is beginning to look a lot like his 2013 numbers, and his wRC+—a metric that captures a player's offensive value in runs above average (100)—is only two points off from where it was last year.
Has Puig's hot streak helped boost his numbers and, by extension, necessitate this conversation?
Well, yeah. Of course.
But Puig's hot streak isn't the only thing going on with him that deserves attention. If we dig a little deeper, we find he's made some legitimate and much-needed improvements to his offensive game.
There are two categories in the above table that deserve special attention: Puig's walk rate (BB%) and strikeout rate (K%). You'll notice that he's drawing more walks and striking out less this year, an indication that "the wild horse," as Vin Scully calls him, suddenly isn't so wild.
And that's not a mirage.
According to FanGraphs, Puig came into Thursday's action swinging at significantly fewer pitches in 2014, as his overall Swing% was down from 54.4 to 49.1. He's been way more selective this year than he was in 2013, when he basically wasn't selective at all.
“When he first came up, that’s just like, ‘Here, we’re throwing it. Try and hit it.’ And he did,” Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire recently told Bill Plunkett. “Then they [started] saying, ‘OK, wait a minute – you don’t really have to throw him a strike.’”
And they didn't. As Plunkett pointed out, FanGraphs put Puig's Zone%—the percentage of pitches he saw inside the strike zone—in 2013 at a mere 38.1, third lowest among National League hitters (minimum 400 plate appearances).
This year, Puig's drop in overall Swing% has coincided with an increase in pitches seen in the strike zone. After finishing at 38.1 percent last year, he began Thursday with a 41.7 Zone%.
And Puig hasn't just earned these extra pitches in the zone simply by swinging less often. He's earned it by showing pitchers that beating him isn't as easy as avoiding the zone.
Here's a closer look at the transformation of Puig's plate discipline, courtesy of FanGraphs:
Note: As with the other discipline figures, these are current as of the start of play on Thursday, May 1.
If all that is gibberish to you, it helps to know that "O" refers to happenings outside the strike zone and that "Z" refers to happenings inside the strike zone. From left to right, you're looking at: swings outside the zone, contact outside the zone, swings inside the zone, contact inside the zone, overall contact and overall swinging-strike percentage.
In turn, what you're looking at is a hitter who has:
- Gotten less aggressive both on pitches inside and outside the zone.
- Gotten better at making contact on pitches both inside and outside the zone.
The decreased aggressiveness puts Puig's improved walk rate in perspective. And even if he is still swinging and missing more than the average player, the improvement in Puig's contact-making skills puts his improved strikeout rate in perspective.
Give Puig some credit. This isn't happening by accident.
“I’ve definitely been doing a lot more studying this year,” Puig told Plunkett through an interpreter. “There’s a lot of good pitchers in this league and they’ve definitely figured me out as a hitter. So I have to do more studying, more preparation with my coaches.”
To this end, one thing Puig must have noticed is that he had an awful lot of trouble with breaking pitches as a rookie. He had difficulty laying off them and at least as much trouble hitting them.
Not this year.
To his swing rate against breaking stuff this year:
What you see is significantly less red and smaller numbers outside of the strike zone. And when Puig has swung against breaking stuff this year, he's been making a solid amount of contact. His whiffs-per-swing rate on breaking stuff has gone from 43.08 last year to 33.33 this year.
Long story short: Don't wave Puig's hot streak off as him simply capturing some of the magic he had in 2013. Rather than some random occurrence, it's more like the work of a genuinely improved hitter.
Which is kind of a scary thought for the rest of the National League. It just watched Puig emerge as one of the top hitters around with no prior experience against major league pitching and at times cringe-worthy plate discipline. He earned the experience last year, and now he has the discipline.
Buckle up. This could be good.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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