Four years later, it's deja vu all over again.
So much has happened since Puig, now 26, took spring training by storm back in '13. He made his major league debut in June of that year and made a hell of a first impression. Then he was an All-Star in 2014. Then he hit a wall. He posted a .780 OPS in the second half of '14 and a .748 OPS in two seasons since. When he hasn't been struggling, he's often been hurt.
Oh, there have been flashes of the old all-powerful, all-speedy Puig here and there. But not enough to thicken the ice beneath the right fielder's feet on a team with plenty of other outfield options.
"My message to him was clear: If he is not performing or he loses his focus, he is going to create opportunities for others, but that is the way it is for everyone," Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts said, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post.
Well, Puig has played in nine games this spring and carved up the opposition with a 1.085 OPS and three homers. He sent a message of his own with the first of those, saying "I'm back" with a blast and a bat flip.
This is the best spring Puig has had since that fateful 2013, when he had a 1.328 OPS and three homers. While the obvious caveat is that this is only spring training, this doesn't look like just another easy-come, easy-go flash of Puig's better self.
I'll tip my hat to Bill Baer of NBCSports.com for noticing it first, but Puig has a new batting stance. To understand it, one must first understand his old stance.
To illustrate with stills from a video of a home run he hit last September, the keys are how he was positioned when the pitcher came set (left) and when the pitcher released the ball (right):
Puig started his swing with a closed stance, and he closed himself even more when the ball was on the way. So much so that he had his back turned to the pitcher.
Compare that to Puig's new stance, in which he looks like this when the pitcher comes set:
And this when the pitcher releases the ball:
Puig is now more open when the pitcher comes set. And while he still closes up when the ball is thrown, it's to a less extreme degree.
"Puig had been working with hitting coach Mark McGwire to get straightened out—to cut down on extra uncoiling to the baseball resulting from his previously closed stance, which had been elongating his swing," Adler wrote.
This was a good idea at the time. It's an even better idea now.
Puig could get away with a longer swing when he first came up thanks to his extraordinary bat speed. But whether it's because his injuries have piled up or his body has filled out, Puig's bat speed seems to have diminished since then.
|Yasiel Puig vs. Fastballs: 2013-2016|
|Year||Percentage Seen||Slugging Percentage Against|
The fastballs used against Puig have tended to follow a pattern. He's seen a higher percentage of inside heat than any other right-handed hitter who's seen at least 1,000 pitches since 2013.
To one end, pitchers are daring Puig to try to turn on the ball. To another end, they're setting him up for soft stuff away. Early last year, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs noticed how such a simple approach was unusually effective against Puig:
Hard in, soft away has existed as a philosophy for decades. But it’s enough right now to keep Puig in a slump. He hasn’t been able to get out in front of the opposition, and it’s a little like he’s guessing between an inside fastball and an outside non-fastball. He’s not blessed with elite-level discipline.
No kidding, and Puig's plate discipline was only getting worse.
He had a 29.6 chase rate (O-Swing%) in 2014, a big improvement over his 37.6 mark in 2013. He then regressed to a 33.7 O-Swing% in 2015 and a 36.1 O-Swing% through his first 198 plate appearances last year.
That brings us to the silver lining.
Although Puig missed time with a hamstring injury and a minor league demotion after his ugly start to 2016, he still managed to finish the season on a high note. He had an .857 OPS over his final 170 plate appearances. In those, he slugged .452 against fastballs and had a 25.1 O-Swing%.
Since Puig's batting stance remained closed, this would appear to be the result of a mental adjustment.
"I think he's really making a concerted effort—which sounds crazy—on just seeing the baseball," Roberts told Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register late last June. "Before he went on the disabled list, he was kind of chasing hits. He's kind of reset. He's slowing things down and, like we've talked about all year, taking balls and swinging at strikes. I think he's doing a better job of that."
As a whole, Puig's last couple of seasons look pretty ugly. But narrow the focus to more recent events, and you see a hitter determined to be a star again.
Puig started fixing two of his biggest problems through sheer force of will last year, which is as good a reminder as any of how talented he is. Now he's working on a physical adjustment that could do one of two things: take him over the proverbial hump, or at least ensure that last summer's improvements stick.
There are no promises to make. What's real in spring training isn't always real when the games start to count. And goodness knows Puig long ago gave up his right to the benefit of the doubt.
But if nothing else, spring is a time for hope. Puig is making it possible to have some.