Gabe Kapler Could Be Catalyst in Turning Yasiel Puig Back into an MLB Superstar

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 5, 2015

Jun 18, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig (66) reacts after striking out against the Texas Rangers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Dodgers have a few priorities to address this winter. The list begins with hiring a new manager. Elsewhere, there's what to do about star right fielder/everlasting headache Yasiel Puig.

Or, the Dodgers could address both priorities at once. All they have to do is hire Gabe Kapler as their new skipper and let him deal with Puig. It could be as simple as that. For, you know, reasons. 

But we'll get to those later.

For now, understand it's hardly a foregone conclusion that the Dodgers are going to hire Kapler to replace the departed Don Mattingly. He's been mentioned as a heavy favorite for the job, including by Buster Olney of ESPN.com and Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, but there are others in the mix.

Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times has reported that former Dodger Dave Roberts is also on the club's radar and that his stock may be rising. Per Jim Bowden of ESPN and MLB Network Radio, there are also quite a few other candidates in the mix:

Jim Bowden @JimBowdenGM

Dodgers MGR candidates include:Kirk Gibson,Bud Black,Gabe Kapler,Dave Roberts,Bob Geren,Dave Martinez, Darrin Erstad, Ron Roenicke, Wallach

But as outlined by Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times, Kapler remains an intriguing choice. His current position as the Dodgers' farm director gives him plenty of familiarity with the organization. And as a former player who spent a dozen years in the majors and has since embraced analytics, he could be a rare skipper who speaks the language of both the front office and the clubhouse.

There's also this: Out of all the Dodgers' managerial candidates, Kapler might be the best equipped to turn Puig into a superstar.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Mind you, it does require some skepticism to presume that Puig needs to be "turned into" a superstar. Even after a trying 2015 season—in which injuries limited him to 79 games and he posted a career-worst .758 OPS—Puig's career still looks like that of an exceptional player.

In three seasons, Puig has racked up a .294/.371/.487 slash line. That gives him a career .858 OPS, which equates to a 141 OPS+, which places him among the league's top 15 hitters (min. 1,000 PAs) since 2013. And even after his rough 2015, WAR still rates him as one of the game's top five right fielders.

So, there. Puig is a really good player. As well he should be, as 6'2", 255-pound bundles of strength, speed and electricity aren't mass-produced (yet...).

But if we allow ourselves to be more realistic for at least a second, Puig has indeed earned skepticism about his superstar status.

Rather than he is a superstar, it's more accurate to say Puig can be a superstar. The difference between "can be" and "is" comes down to consistency, a concept that has thus far eluded Puig.

To illustrate, behold a chart of his month-to-month OPS:

Granted, the various injuries Puig has dealt with haven't helped. But pinning his inconsistency on the injury bug is unfair to the injury bug. Just as much as his injuries, Puig's inconsistency is owed to the fact that he's just, well, inconsistent.

At the plate, his inconsistency comes from all-too-frequent lapses in pitch recognition and plate discipline. On the bases, his recklessness can just as easily lead to a comedy of errors as it can results. And though his defense features some amazing throws, he also makes it hard to ignore his comes-and-goes effort level and his penchant for overthrowing cutoff men.

Vin Scully, the Dodgers' legendary play-by-play announcer, calls Puig "the Wild Horse." In light of how he carries himself off the field, that's too perfect.

But just as noteworthy, of course, is that Puig's nickname also applies to how he carries himself in general.

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 23:  Yasiel Puig #66 of the Los Angeles Dodgers is restrained by manager Don Mattingly and home plate umpire Adrian Johnson after Puig was hit by a pitch from Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium on S
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Puig's assorted behavioral issues—with tardiness, with his temper, with his work ethic, etc.—were well-documented in 2013 and 2014. And though many of his transgressions seemed overblown, it became harder to back that perception in 2015.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports noted that Puig's behavior actually improved throughout the year, but Molly Knight's book The Best Team Money Can Buy pulled back the curtain on Puig's contentious relationship with Mattingly and with his teammates.

"[Mattingly] had to deal with Yasiel Puig, who’s phenomenally talented, sells tickets...and he’s a basket case," said Knight in an interview with Grantland's Jonah Keri. "He flouts all the rules, skips BP, shows up late. What do you do? Bench him and watch your team lose? Or not punish him and piss off 24 other guys?”

In Mattingly's defense, he did try to find the right gloves for handling Puig. There were plenty of times in which he stood up for Puig. And as Knight hinted at, it's also to Mattingly's credit that he didn't let Puig's antics get in the way of the Dodgers' winning three straight NL West titles.

But for all that Mattingly did well, his style of managing Puig can still be second-guessed.

Though there were instances in which Mattingly defended Puig, there were also instances in which he couldn't hide his frustration with him, and instances in which he effectively used the media to challenge Puig to shape up and become more mature. Mattingly also wasn't shy about benching Puig, most infamously when the Dodgers were facing elimination in the 2014 postseason.

For Mattingly, Puig was a problem child. His response was generally to treat Puig as such. From three years' worth of material, we can gather this wasn't the best approach for handling Puig.

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 28:  Gabe Kapler #33 of the Los Angeles Dodgers warms up before the game against the Chicago White Sox during spring training at Camelback Ranch on February 28, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Which brings us, finally, back to Kapler.

If the Dodgers hire him, they could at least count on his approaching The Great Puig Project with enthusiasm. During his rise to prominence as a writer and TV analyst, Kapler made it clear he's a big fan of Puig's style. Writing at Gammons Daily in 2013, Kapler even went so far as to write that Puig was "the most charming, exciting, engaging and flat out fun player that I’ve ever witnessed."

Knowing this, Kapler likely wouldn't be overly preoccupied with getting Puig to leave his "Wild Horse" days behind him on the field. If nothing else, that could help Kapler get on Puig's good side.

But lest anyone worry about Puig running amok under Kapler's watch, that likely wouldn't be the case. Simply getting on Puig's good side would be only half the battle for Kapler. The other half would be solving the consistency question, and he has both the training and the ideas for the task.

Kapler has experience dealing with raw young talents like Puig. He was the manager for the Single-A Greenville Drive back in 2007, where Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe said Kapler drew "rave reviews" for his performance. More recently, Pedro Moura of the Orange County Register highlighted how Kapler has used a data-driven approach to help get Dodgers youngsters on track. 

Of course, this raises the question: Kapler may have the right kind of background for a job that requires getting the most out of Puig, but how exactly would his approach differ from Mattingly's?

Fortunately, there's no need for wild guesses. Kapler pretty much told us what he would do.

In March 2014, Kapler penned a column for Fox Sports in which he argued that Puig's demeanor wasn't an "attack on the organization." Rather, it merely signified where Puig was in the developmental cycle. To Kapler, Puig looked not like a "man without experience" but a "man without boundaries."

To establish the necessary boundaries, Kapler argued an authoritarian "Bobby Knight approach" was the wrong idea. Instead, the trick should be to give him role models to take after, which, rather than commanding Puig to follow, has to do with encouraging respected veterans to lead by example.

Or, in short: "The question isn’t 'How should Mattingly handle Puig?' It’s 'How should the Dodgers family handle Puig?'"

Is this the right approach for handling Puig? Only time could tell. But it's at least an approach the Dodgers seemingly haven't tried yet. That alone makes it worth trying, and Kapler is certainly the right guy to carry it out.

If it were to turn out that Kapler isn't the guy to get the most out of Puig, well, that could actually end up being neither here nor there. The Dodgers were able to win in 2015 despite the fact Puig was basically a footnote throughout the year. Between the talent they have now and the resources they have to add more talent, they could move forward into 2016 with a real chance to do that all over again.

If, on the other hand, it were to turn out that Kapler is the right guy to turn Puig into the superstar he can be, the reward could very well be the Dodgers turning into the superteam they so badly want to be.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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