Scott Miller's Starting 9: Set Up to Fail, Yasiel Puig Now Learning MLB Way

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistApril 12, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 10:  Yasiel Puig #66 of the Los Angeles Dodgers bats against the San Francisco Giants in the top of the ninth inning at AT&T Park on April 10, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

One week in, no wonder the Oriole on Baltimore's cap and the Dodgers are smiling so big...

1. The Yasiel Puig Experience, Year 4

Seven games, two triples, one homer, four RBI and an 1.154 OPS into a new year, Yasiel Puig is supercharged and making up for lost time.

Is this real, or is it a mirage?

Andrew Friedman, Los Angeles Dodgers president of baseball operations, votes for the former.

When we spoke at the club's Arizona complex in late spring, Friedman told Bleacher Report that Puig was doing "incredibly well" and that new manager Dave Roberts and the coaching staff were doing "a great job creating a relationship" with Puig and everybody else.

But what really had Friedman optimistic was a Puig interview he read from the Caribbean World Series over the winter.

"He said he wanted to be a better teammate, he just wasn't sure how," Friedman said. "It showed a level of vulnerability to me.

"We've never questioned his work ethic."

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It does get tired, placing every one of Puig's moves under a microscope and evaluating his every action daily and in real time.

At 25, he still hasn't shown the maturity and understanding that the Dodgers hoped to see by now.

But what's new this year as Friedman and his regime begin their second season is this: Maybe it is the Dodgers now who finally have a better understanding.

Dec 1, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers  manager Dave Roberts and  Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations talk to the media during a press conference today at Dodger Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

"We as an industry, in my opinion, have failed our Cuban players," Friedman told Bleacher Report. "We sign them for big money and rush them to the big leagues.

"It's different over there. The preparation. When guys show up [to the ballpark]. The expectations."

He's right. When expensive free agents sign from Japan, they get translators from day one. When Latin players and Cubans land in the majors, they're on their own.

That's changed this year. To its credit under commissioner Rob Manfred, beginning this season MLB has ordered that Spanish-speaking translators be around full-time for Latin players. Including, yes, the Cuban players.

It seems so elementary, yet like so many things in baseball, it was slow to change.

Where Puig is concerned, Friedman and his assistants took on a lot in their debut season in Los Angeles last summer. Learned a lot along the way, too.

"Last year, obviously you're mired in what's going on within your own clubhouse, the 25 guys," Friedman said. "That said, observing and [having] various conversations with Puig kind of helped enlighten us a little bit, the assumptions that we as an industry have made along the way. And it's allowed us to evaluate our process with our minor league players and make some changes on the front end to help educate our guys to the uniqueness that is Major League Baseball."

Chief among them: Because of the significant culture change these players undergo, it helps to assume nothing.

That point was driven home when Friedman read of Puig's plaintive cry from the Caribbean this winter about wanting to become a better teammate but not knowing how. This came during another tumultuous period in which, among other things, his own teammates were critical of him in a Bleacher Report story.

To Friedman, Puig's desire to be a better teammate "manifested" itself this spring.

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 06:  Yasiel Puig #66 of the Los Angeles Dodgers is congratulated by Joc Pederson #31 after hitting a solo home run during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on April 6, 2016 in San
Denis Poroy/Getty Images

"He's asking questions and trying to figure out things that are important," Friedman said. "But at the same time, we're trying to balance that with not fundamentally changing any of our guys. We want them to be the unique individuals that they are and not strip that individuality.

"But there are certain constructs within the environment of a team that are important."

Finding that balance continues to be a tricky proposition, and it is one of the most important challenges facing Roberts as he begins his managerial career.

Because of hamstring injuries, Puig only played in 79 games last summer, and his swing was so rusty come October that former manager Don Mattingly benched him during the playoffs.

As 2016 launches, the Dodgers must find a way not to have themselves and Puig in that position again.

2. New Analytics, Orioles Style

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

From afterthought to undefeated in the first week, what is the Baltimore Orioles' secret?

For one thing, third baseman Manny Machado, who has the tools to win an MVP award one day, did a pretty good imitation of an MVP in his club's first five games. He batted .429/.455/.905 with three homers, completely camouflaging the fact that All-Star center fielder Adam Jones missed three consecutive games with sore ribs.

But the chief reason why the Orioles' 5-0 start (entering Monday) matched the best in club history (since 1954) is that Baltimore starting pitchers ranked second in the majors with a 2.28 ERA over the season's first week. Chris Tillman, Yovani Gallardo, Ubaldo Jimenez and even Vance Worley all positioned the O's to win against Minnesota and Tampa Bay.

Meanwhile, Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard started in the outfield on Opening Day, and the last O's Rule 5 pick to do that? According to STATS LLC, it was none other than Jose Bautista in 2004. Yes, that Joey Bats.

Manager Buck Showalter praised the club's defense and fundamentals out of the gate, specifically Chris Davis' productive outs and Mark Trumbo's extra work in right field.

"We kid around," Showalter told the Baltimore media, including MASN's Roch Kubatko, regarding productive outs. "We call them POFOs: Productive Outs for Orioles.

"It's a new analytics, Orioles-style, I guess."

3. The Neighborhood: Not So Friendly Anymore

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Second baseman Joe Panik and the San Francisco Giants learned quickly last week that the old swipe-your-foot-near-second-base is no longer good enough while turning a double play.

The Toronto Blue Jays and Houston Astros each suffered losses last week that were directly attributable to the new slide rules at second base.

In the case of the Blue Jays, a sliding Jose Bautista reached out and grabbed the leg of Tampa Bay second baseman Logan Forsythe and was called on it.

In the case of the Astros, Colby Rasmus was called out for interference on a slide in Milwaukee.

That this new rule would create trouble was more predictable than a run at your neighborhood pizza place on a Friday night.

The two most controversial parts: the elimination of the neighborhood play, which has infielders like San Francisco's Brandon Crawford up in arms, and the "hold your base" part of it that got Rasmus. When sliding into second, runners cannot slide past the bag, even if they start their slide late. If they do, they're out.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch begrudgingly agreed that umpires had correctly interpreted the rule last week, but he didn't exactly sound enamored with it:

Brian McTaggart @brianmctaggart

Hinch on new rules https://t.co/zVXCu2UjqP

Managers from the Cubs' Joe Maddon to the Diamondbacks' Chip Hale don't understand why the hold-your-base part of the rule is there, calling for common-sense interpretations when a runner innocently starts his slide late.

Casey Stern @CaseyStern

Chip Hale & Joe Maddon told me yesterday they're confused by the need to "hold the base" after you're out. Nobody understands that insanity

Where we're headed, surely, is toward some subtle adjustments to the rule, much like two years ago when a rule change created confusion on the transfer part of a catch. Suddenly, sure outs after a fielder caught a pop fly were becoming hits when the fielder dropped the ball attempting to transfer it from his glove to his hand when throwing the ball.

One manager with significant input into the rules committee, however, will not lobby for the return of the "neighborhood play" anytime soon.

"If you're limiting what a player can do by sliding into the bag, there's no reason to give an advantage to the infielder," Angels skipper Mike Scioscia said. "It takes a guy who is really proficient at turning the double play and gives a guy who is not proficient at it at all leeway to play at a comparable level.

"You're neutralizing the effectiveness of the rule, especially now when a runner can't slide into the fielder.

"I'm glad you have to keep your foot on the bag. It's baseball."

4. The Ghost of the No-Hitter

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

No question, it was deflating when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts removed rookie starter Ross Stripling with one out in the eighth and a no-hitter still intact in San Francisco on Friday night.

It also was the absolute correct move.

No matter how much the tar-and-feathers crowd disagreed on Twitter and other various forms of social media and social talk show radio.

Stripling, 26, had Tommy John ligament transfer surgery two years ago, had never pitched above the Double-A level and started just 14 games last summer.

Friday night in San Francisco, Roberts pulled him at the 100-pitch mark. The velocity on his fastball had dipped a bit; he had issued walks in both the seventh and eighth innings and admitted after the game that he was tired.

He needed five more outs to obtain the no-no. So, realistically, he would have had to run his pitch count up to at least the 120-130 range even had he gotten it.

Sure, it well might have been a once-in-a-lifetime chance. But it's not like Roberts lifted him just one or two outs away.

Say what you will, but the best validation came to Roberts in the hotel lobby the next day when Stripling's father approached him.

Roberts told reporters, via Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register:

He came up to me and was really kind of emotional and just thanked me from him and his wife for looking out for his son.

When you have a father and a mother who know their kid's story and what he's endured to get here, they enjoy that moment more than anyone. For him to say thank you for taking care of my son's future and our family and I'll have him and his mom's support foreverfor me, I felt good about it regardless, but to get the parent's stamp of approval is always a good thing.

Stripling, by the way, was teammates with St. Louis starter Michael Wacha at Texas A&M.

5. Of Managers and Dresses

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Interesting response from Toronto skipper John Gibbons when he said "the world needs to lighten up a little bit" the other day.

This was in response to the reaction he elicited a day earlier, after Jose Bautista was called out at second under the new slide rule. Then, he had said, "Maybe we'll come out and wear dresses tomorrow. Maybe that's what everyone's looking for."

Predictably, Gibbons was slammed for being a sexist Blue Jay.

"It doesn't offend my mother, my daughter, my wife, who have a great understanding of life," Gibbons said.

What Gibbons and the slow-starting Blue Jays need right now is a great understanding of how to beat the Yankees and Red Sox this week.

6. Weekly Power Rankings

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

1. Trevor Story: Rockies hoping for a long Story, not a short Story, as kid shortstop leaps out of the gate with seven home runs in club's first six games.

2. Bumpus Jones: Only man in history to throw a no-hitter in his first MLB start, with the Cincinnati Reds in 1892. Still standing tall after Dodgers hook Ross Stripling.

3. Second base: New slide rules give second base its moment of glory and cause teenage couples throughout the land to hastily re-evaluate what it means, exactly, in the modern era, to get to second base, third base…

4. Starlin Castro: A Star(lin) is Born in the Bronx as Castro posts 1.326 OPS in first five games as a Yankee.

5. Jackie Robinson Day: It's this Friday, and we repeat one of the most meaningful things he or anyone else has ever said: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

7. Boys Will Be Boys

Mike Trout and Garrett Richards have a long history together in the Angels organization.

They were roommates at Class A Cedar Rapids and Rancho Cucamonga, Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Salt Lake, and Richards tells of the days when Trout would seek out a Domino's pizza joint in whichever city they were in. And of his ability to devour 24 Buffalo wings in about 10 minutes.

Now, add this tremendous April Fools' prank to their shared history (with the help of YouTube pranksters Jesse and Jeana of Prank Academy):

8. Chatter

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

• New York, New York: The Mets and Yankees have two of the top three strikeout-to-walk ratios in the majors heading into the season's second week. Mets pitchers have produced a 6.14-1 ratio, while Yankees pitchers are at 6.38-1.

• Cubs manager Joe Maddon is predicting a big year for Jon Lester. "His delivery," Maddon says. "I don't think there was a moment last year that I thought his delivery was as smooth as it was this spring. His cutter was as good in camp as it was anytime last season. And I think he's more comfortable not having the weight of the world on his shoulders [now that he's in his second season in the organization]."

 Tough sledding ahead: The Cleveland Indians had three games postponed in the season's first week. Shoehorning all those makeup games in will present significant challenges later this summer.

• Minnesota's 0-6 start was the worst in team history.

 Confusion patrol: The Cubs on Monday acquired left-hander Giovanni Soto from the Cleveland Indians for cash. The Cubs also once employed a catcher named Geovany Soto. Uh-huh.

 Arizona's Jean Segura last week became only the eighth player in history to collect a leadoff home run and inside-the-park homer in the same game, according to STATS LLC.

 So after the Padres started the season by failing to score in their first 30 innings, a major league record, they started this week ranked eighth in the majors with 32 runs scored. Of course.

9. How to Use a Bench

On Friday, in St. Louis' 7-4 win over Atlanta:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

.@Cardinals on Friday became first team in MLB history to hit three pinch-hit home runs in a game (via @EliasSports) https://t.co/7GVtUVdIZy

9a. Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Day

DOVER, DE - JUNE 28:  Musician/songwriter Merle Haggard performs onstage during day 3 of the Big Barrel Country Music Festival on June 28, 2015 in Dover, Delaware.  (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Big Barrel)
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

A few years ago, I spent a day in Bakersfield, California, when the Blaze were the Class A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds and Ken Griffey Sr. was their manager. Now, the Blaze are affiliated with the Seattle Mariners and still play in Sam Lynn Ballpark, where start times graduate during the summer from 7:15 p.m. to 7:30 to 7:45 because the ballpark was built the wrong way, facing west, which makes it precarious for hitters as the sun sets directly into their eyes. So, they must adjust as the summer moves along.

The little ballpark was built on the site of an oval horse racing track, which contributed to why it was built the wrong way. Anyway, just a few miles up the road is Merle Haggard Drive, where today they're in mourning after the Country Music Hall of Famer died last week at 79.

Haggard followed in the footsteps of Buck Owens before him to give us what became known as the "Bakersfield Sound," and Haggard's death follows that of Glenn Frey, David Bowie and Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire in what has been a tough year for music.

"Cowboys and outlaws, right guys and southpaws,

"Good dogs and all kinds of cats

"Dirt roads and white lines and all kinds of stop signs,

"But I stand right here where I'm at,

"'Cause I wear my own kind of hat."

 —Merle Haggard, "My Own Kind of Hat"

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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