Yasiel Puig's Home Run Power Drought Shouldn't Cause Panic in LA

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJuly 21, 2014

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig hits a double against the Cleveland Indians during the first inning of a baseball game in Los Angeles, Tuesday, July 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Chris Carlson/Associated Press

In July 2013, Yasiel Puig was a wrecking ball. Just ask Miguel Montero.

In a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Los Angeles Dodgers' rookie outfielder was thrown out at the plate while attempting to bowl over the D'Backs catcher.

Then Puig did something Montero didn't appreciate: He turned around and shot him a look.

That was Puig, and it still is: brimming with confidence, never afraid and, frequently, courting controversy with his antics.

After the incident, Montero had some choice words for the young Cuban. "Everything is right for him, he feels pretty good about himself," Montero told MLB.com's Tyler Emerick at the time. "This game pays back though, he's going to have his bad moments out there."

A year later, Montero's words ring true.

Puig is still Puig, though he's shown flashes of increased maturity bordering on humility. He brushed aside a question about becoming the new face of baseball at the All-Star Game, telling MLB.com's Tracy Ringolsby that guys like the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout and Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera "are the ones who have established themselves, not me."

More than anything, though, Montero was spot-on about the bad moments. For Puig they came at the 2014 Midsummer Classic, when he became the first Home Run Derby participant since 2012 to not hit a home run and then went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts in the game itself.

Really, his struggles go deeper.

After failing to hit a home run for the entire month of June in which he was hampered by a hip injury, Puig has hit just one in July. It's less than two months, granted. Yet the Dodgers, locked in a tight race with the San Francisco Giants in the National League West, have to wonder where the pop has gone.

Puig himself shrugged off his power outage after hitting his first long ball in more than 30 games on July 4. "I need to go to the gym to get stronger," the ripped outfielder joked after breaking his dinger-free streak, per the Orange County Register's Bill Plunkett.

Puig then added, "I don't need home runs. I need hits."

For the most part, the hits have been coming. Entering play Monday, Puig—who missed Sunday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals after taking a pitch off the hand—is batting .308. His plate discipline has generally improved compared to last year, per FanGraphs, and he has a robust .396 OBP to show for it.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

He's armed with the weapons—the disruptive speed, the howitzer arm—that make him one of the most complete players in the game. 

Oh, and by the way, he's only 23.

All of which is to say the Dodgers shouldn't hit the panic button. Really, with his overall numbers as good as they are, it's not even fair to classify Puig's struggles as a sophomore slump.

According to his countryman, Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland A's, power isn't an essential part of Puig's game.

"Not to be disrespectful to him at all, but I know him from Cuba," Cespedes told the Los Angeles Times' Bill Shaikin in 2013. "He's not really a home run hitter."

No question Puig can be good—spraying line drives and challenging the defense with his legswithout cracking the ball over the fence. Despite his home run struggles, he's 14th in WAR among MLB hitters, per FanGraphs.

But—could you sense there was a "but" coming?—Los Angeles and its fans expect more than merely good out of their irrepressible outfielder. They expect greatness. They expect a game-changing, generation-defining talent.

In his second season in the league, that's where Puig has set the bar.

There's a prevailing theory that participation in the Home Run Derby can mess with a player's swing. Will Puig get too power happy after participating in baseball's premier power event?

Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire, something of an authority on the subject, isn't buying it. "Ridiculous," McGwire told Plunkett when asked if the Derby would make Puig too home run happy. "These guys take batting practice every day and launch balls."

Batting practice, yes. The question now is when, and if, Puig will start launching balls when it counts. 

The game, to quote Montero, has paid him back. Now we'll see what Puig has left in the bank.


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