Yasiel Puig Has Finally Found the Perfect Place to Let 'Wild Horse' Run Free

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 7, 2019

Cincinnati Reds Yasiel Puig takes questions from reporters during a media availability at the P&G MLB Cincinnati Reds Youth Academy, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
John Minchillo/Associated Press

Yasiel Puig is a Cincinnati Red now—and loving it.

The Reds acquired Puig in a seven-player trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Dec. 21. The deal was effectively a salary dump for the Dodgers, one that moved Puig from a large-market World Series contender to a small-market club that leads Major League Baseball in losses since 2015.

But if Puig has any hard feelings, he did a dandy of a job hiding them in his first public appearance as a Red last Wednesday:

In speaking to reporters, including Mark Sheldon of MLB.com, Puig expressed optimism that he and the 2019 Reds can turn the tide and emulate the Big Red Machine teams of the 1970s. The Cuba native also insisted that he's bothered by neither the temperature nor the size of his new surroundings.

"I've been playing in a small city, a small country, almost all my life," he told reporters.

Perhaps it's best not to read too much into Puig's sunny disposition. Or the Reds' exhibition of it, for that matter. Public relations blitzes are a thing, after all. And in the dead of winter—an especially cold one in Cincinnati, to be sure—this fits the bill.

Alternatively, we could posit that Puig is the right guy in the right place at exactly the right time.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The "Wild Horse" is what legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully started calling Puig during his star-making rookie season in 2013. And, boy, did it fit.

Puig's opening statement was a debut week for the ages in which he showed that he was indeed a force of nature. He had power, speed and arm strength as good as anyone's, not to mention the personality and playing style of an anthropomorphized lightning bolt. There were bat flips and other celebratory displays aplenty.

"It's pretty amazing," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said at the time. "It's pretty special to be a part of. It just doesn't seem like he's slowing down. He's definitely changed the culture in this clubhouse."

Puig ultimately finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting on the strength of a .925 OPS and 4.7 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. The following year, he made the NL All-Star team and finished with an .863 OPS and 5.1 WAR.

At a certain point, however, it became difficult to focus on Puig's numbers. The same lightning-bolt nature that powered his rise to stardom also ignited controversy after controversy (h/t MLB.com's Will Leitch for compiling them) between 2013 and 2016. 

Some of those—most notably his spat with notoriously red-rear-ended San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner in May 2014—weren't entirely Puig's fault. They were more like instances of MLB simply not being ready for a player unmoored from the bland culture long since established by the "unwritten rules."

It's not as easy to shift blame for the times when Puig ran afoul of his own teammates, or of former manager Don Mattingly. And following an injury-marred 2015, his offense was declining so drastically in 2016 that the Dodgers ran out of excuses to be patient with him. In August, they finally sent him down to the minors for a period meant to "improve him as a player and person."

Evidently, it worked.

Starting with his return to the Dodgers in September 2016, Puig bounced back with an .832 OPS, 55 home runs and 30 stolen bases over his next 300 games. He was last seen playing a major role in the 2018 postseason with huge homers in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series and Game 4 of the World Series.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

And though he largely maintained his Wild Horse persona, Puig mostly stayed out of trouble. There was the time he sent a two-fingered message to heckling fans. And he had yet another run-in with the Giants. But nothing egregious, and he generally fit more comfortably under Dave Roberts' wing than he ever did under Mattingly's.

"He was kind of at a fork in the road in terms of which way to go," Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said in a post-trade conference call with reporters. "To his credit, he put in a lot of hard work and focused on being a better teammate and performing more consistently, and he's been a big part of the success we've had in 2017 and 2018."

Meanwhile, there's been a decidedly Puig-friendly shift in MLB's culture. The league has steadily been distancing itself away from a preference for blank-faced automatons and more toward players with life in their limbs and emotions on their sleeves.

The culmination was MLB's "Let the Kids Play" promo for the 2018 postseason. Puig was prominently featured flipping his bat and wagging his tongue, all against the backdrop of Ken Griffey Jr., baseball's OG cool dude, urging baseball fans to lighten up a little:

About the only thing Puig has been missing in the last couple of seasons is a spotlight of his own. Despite the equilibrium he found following his demotion, he spent much of 2017 and 2018 as one star among many on Dodgers teams with loftier ambitions than merely being relevant.

Which brings us, finally, back to Cincinnati.

Along with fellow former Dodgers Matt Kemp and Alex Wood and other newcomers Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark, Puig is merely one piece of the Reds' impressive offseason haul. Likewise, he's sharing a roster with incumbent stars such as Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett. Which is to say, Puig is only one reason to believe that the Reds can rise from the muck and contend in the NL Central this season.

There's nonetheless a sense that the Reds care just as much about being relevant as they do about being good. To this end, of course Puig is emerging as the point man in their hype machine for 2019. He may be one of many stars, but none of their other guys has as much potential star power as he does.

To hold up his end of the bargain, Puig will eventually have to keep backing up his eccentricity with production. It can only help that the trade to Cincinnati reunited him with hitting coach/kissing buddy Turner Ward, who had a huge hand in facilitating Puig's revival in Los Angeles.

"We are like a family. I talk to him a lot," Puig said of Ward, according to Sheldon. "He's helped me a lot to be a better person, a better baseball player."

Puig should also be boosted by his new home ballpark. He slammed 51 homers across 2017 and 2018 despite having to contend with Dodger Stadium's deep dimensions and marine layer. By contrast, Great American Ball Park is a tiny stadium with fly-ball-boosting powers:

Data courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

Health permitting, the first 30-homer season of Puig's career should be within reach in 2019. Throw in everything else he can do—namely: run the bases and play Gold Glove-caliber defense—and he should at least re-emerge as an All-Star. He might even make a run at the NL MVP.

If there's a downside to Puig's outlook in Cincinnati, it's that he may only stick around for one year. He's due for free agency after 2019. If his walk year is as explosive as it should be, his market value could grow beyond Cincinnati's comfort zone.

All the same, the times should be good while they last. The Reds are getting the best possible version of Puig, and the conditions in Cincinnati are just right for everyone to notice.

             

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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