The inaugural edition of Sunday Night Baseball provided the fourth matchup of this young season between Bochy’s Giants and Roberts’ Dodgers. Flaunting their offensive strength, the Dodgers polished off Chris Stratton and the Giants bullpen with nine runs on 13 hits, three of coming off the bat of Yasiel Puig (his first knocks of the season).
Halfway through the broadcast, Alex Rodriguez lauded Puig, mentioning his admiration for the approach that led him to three line drives in the game, sprayed across the diamond. A-Rod praised the right fielder even more, noting that Puig would be fast on his way to National League MVP consideration in the future if this small sample of at-bats was any primer for things to come. Jessica Mendoza and Matt Vasgersian labeled it a “hot take,” the cringe-worthy label attached to anything that deviates from normalcy.
My paraphrasing of A-Rod’s thoughts confirm a common belief: Puig has immense talent. How he displays his talent just isn’t what fans are used to. Good friend, coach, and scout Nick Holmes wrote a series of columns for CBBSN detailing one of many ways baseball in the United States is unlike baseball in Latin American countries. It’s more showy; conspicuous to us Americans given our familiarity with American baseball players and their various aesthetic tendencies.
Molly Knight’s fantastic book, “The Best Team Money Can Buy,” put on paper some of stories that made their way around media figures connecting Puig to criticism. I remember flipping through chapters highlighting Puig, wondering how much production he would need for the negative chatter to disappear.
What if A-Rod’s potential MVP prediction was enough to erase the past negativity?
Batting in the three-spot more times this season (4) through five games than all of last year (1) is a good start to provide a miniscule boost to his +100,000 MVP odds. With Justin Turner’s injury, sidelining the third baseman for four to 10 weeks, Puig will be able to leverage a nice sum of opportunities to show manager Dave Roberts the eight-spot (59 times last season) is a thing of the past, even if the placement is short lived.
Puig’s Steamer projection makes him a 3-WAR player, slotting him in as a top-25 player in the National League. The mixture of plus defense and offense, combined with permissible baserunning numbers (likely bogged down by his aggression), isn’t a common combination of skills in the three-true-outcomes era.
Yet, you would need to heavily inflate Puig’s production to push him squarely into the MVP conversation. Something similar to Tommy Pham’s season from 2017 might do it – .306/.411/.520 with 23 home runs and 25 stolen bases, paired with plus defense. If you squint hard enough, tweak the power up and speed down, you can get there, but I don’t expect that level of production from many players.
So maybe an MVP Award is out of the question.
But sometimes production that is simply different can catch the attention of analysts and fans. Puig did just that in the middle of last year.
There are very few times (I presume) where a hitting coach gives a player an ultimatum. I imagine to cause this stanuch of a drop in Puig’s chase rate on pitches outside of the zone, that declaration by Dodgers’ hitting coach Turner Ward was strong. Puig nearly halved his tendency to swing outside of the zone – a common stat linked to aggression at the plate. The days of Puig “playing with his hair on fire” might from now on be exclusive to his defense and baserunning.
While it’s far too early to tell if this trend has normalized in 2018 as it did at the end of last season, another stat stands out to me.
Prior to Tuesday’s game in Arizona, every single pitch Puig has swung at in the zone (19), he has made contact with. His in-zone-contact percentage jumped nearly five percent last season, putting him right around league average. This year, it’s a perfect 100 percent after 88 pitches seen.
It seems at the plate, Puig has matured as a hitter. Even if we’re assuming more than we should off a combination of small samples, the occurrence of these traits feel more conscious than a matter of random variation.
While these instances of maturation are relatively acute, more chronic are the mechanical adjustments Puig has made since his debut in the league.
The essence of these tweaks are conducive to more power. I spoke to hitting gurus Jason Ochart and Bobby Stevens Jr. about front-foot hitting when I wrote about the adjustments Dansby Swanson made. The theme there resonating that a tendency to come forward early (lengthening the time between front-foot plant and swing trigger) can cut Exit Velocity. Exit velocity, in the present day, is what nearly all hitters are trying to optimize.
Puig’s front foot met the ground in a perpendicular way via his toe in 2016 and prior, a unique touch to his stance that one doesn’t see often. His raw power was always there, but I retrospectively wonder whether some of the Dodgers’ brass thought his early stride may have been sapping his game power. Side-by-side with the present day, you can see the change in his front foot, as well as a much more subtle relaxation of his hands that can look convincing based on the camera angle of the given stadium.
In-tandem with Puig’s unexpected ability to be selective at the plate, and not lose the ability to square-up pitches, this lower-half alteration that may have brought about more power last season, creates the faint framework of a long-shot MVP candidate.
On top of the discipline, in his last two games (not counting Tuesday), Puig has six balls hit with an exit velocity greater than 105 mph. For comparison the highest average exit velocity last season was Aaron Judge with 94.9 mph. Puig won’t average out around either of the Bronx Bombers, but this jump is worthy of your consideration.
If I had a dollar, and Puig’s +100,000 odds for NL MVP were still active, I would consider sacrificing a George Washington on the chance Puig puts everything together in the prime of his career.
Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons, thanks to AP3 for the shot of Puig.
Statistics via Fangraphs.com, BaseballSavant.com, and BrooksBaseball.net.
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