In the bottom of the eighth inning of the April 1st Giants-Dodgers game, Yasiel Puig hit a single. It was a well-placed if unremarkable bouncing ground ball whizzing just past a diving Brandon Crawford to land in shallow center field. His third hit of the night.
“One thing I loved about his approach tonight,” opined color commentator Alex Rodriguez “is that he has not overswung one time.” “If he could continue that approach all season,” A-Rod maintained, then we’re “looking at a future MVP of the National League.”
“What? Whoa.” was all a bemused Jessica Mendoza could offer in response.
“Hot take Alex!” quipped Matt Vasgersian, articulating what most of that evening’s viewers were surely thinking. The trio exchanged a couple of jokes about Rodriguez’s comment and quickly moved on to Yasmani Grandal’s ongoing at bat without saying anything more of Puig’s MVP hopes.
But did A-Rod’s argument deserve the lukewarm reception it got? Perhaps. But maybe he’s onto something. After all, Puig’s no stranger to MVP talk—he received votes in each of his first two seasons.
His subsequent decline, though, was well-documented. For a while, his future as a major league starter was in question. On-field and off-the-field struggles—and frequent injury issues—led many to conclude that his brief stint as a superstar was over for good.
But that changed in 2017, and Puig’s offensive resurgence was one of the big Playoff Narratives surrounding the Dodgers’ postseason run. Plus, he’d turned himself into a very good defender. Could he sustain that success in 2018?
Admittedly, the results haven’t been promising so far. Puig is off to a slow start, sporting a dismal .220/.286/.300 along with a -0.1 fWAR. There’s room for optimism, however, and there are several things he can do to boost his MVP campaign.
Continue the Good Defense
Puig’s 2017 was markedly better than his past two seasons. His offense wasn’t back to the lofty heights it reached in 2013 and 2014, but his defense drastically improved. He had more defensive runs saved than each of his past seasons combined. His UZR and UZR/150 were both fourth best in baseball.
Let’s dig deeper to give us an idea of what he did better:
His biggest improvements came in UZR’s Range Runs (RngR) and DRS’s Plus/Minus Runs (rPM). rPM measures the total bases above or below average that a fielder saves, including factors like range and converting balls into outs. RngR quantifies how well a fielder can get to balls hit into his zones. So Puig may be going after more balls, or maybe he’s improved his routes, or maybe the Dodgers are doing a better job with outfield shifts.
His Statcast metrics are, alas, less than exceptional. He ranked 119th (out of 206) in Outs Above Average (OAA) last year with -1. Catch Probability numbers, which underlie OAA, reveal that, while he’s perfectly good on routine catches, it’s the more difficult plays he has trouble with. And he had among the most opportunities for easy catches last year. Perhaps, then, it’s his high number of easy opportunities that inflated his defensive numbers.
We can also compare Catch Probability with Inside Edge fielding metrics:
I’m not sure where the discrepancies are here, but Statcast is much lower on Puig’s defense than Inside Edge. It might just be the different buckets. But, Statcast may be onto something.
Either way, these metrics don’t account for everything that happens after the catch, including plays like this:
Maybe this is where Puig really shines. Defensive metrics are tricky and tend to be unstable over even single-season samples, so we’ll have to wait and see. If he can remain (or become?) good offensively (or at least appear that he is), he can take a big step in 2018.
Puig was a really poor baserunner in 2017. He would’ve been worth nearly a win more if he’d been just average. While he’s never been great on the basepaths, his baserunning collapse seemed to come out of nowhere.
It’s not exactly his speed, as his Statcast sprint speed was respectable. And he was about an average base stealer (a career best for him). As Jeff Sullivan has noted, there were two main culprits. First was an unsustainably high rate of grounding into double plays. Second was his ineffectiveness at things like taking an extra base on a hit and getting thrown out on the basepaths. For reasons Jeff explained, his baserunning woes seemed like a fluke.
On the surface, Puig isn’t trending in the right direction so far this season. He’s not having many of the same problems on the basepaths, but his baserunning’s still been about half a run below average. Hopefully that’s just because of small sample size. For one, he’s attempted two steals and made one of them, so it’s doubtful that he’ll run a 50% caught stealing rate all season (he’s usually around 30%).
He’s also hit into two double plays already, but it’s unlikely to be as bad as last year. In 2017 he hit ground balls 54% of the time with runners on, and 60% of those grounders were pulled. He did tend to pull ground balls with runners on before that, just not at that high a rate.
This season he has just a 33% ground ball rate with runners on, and he’s pulled about half of them (league average is about 56%). Overall, he’s pulling only 42% of his ground balls, by far the lowest of his career. That’s good. Leaguewide, there isn’t much difference between ground ball pull rate with or without runners on, so there’s no reason to think Puig will be different. If he keeps this up, he’ll likely have a much lower GIDP rate.
Still, Puig doesn’t need to be a good baserunner to be great; Joey Votto finished second in MVP voting last year, yet he was the worst baserunner in baseball. Then again, Puig won’t make up for this deficiency with offense as much as Votto does. It seems unlikely that he’ll be as bad on the basepaths as he was last year, but it’s something to watch.
Improve the Peripherals and the Results Will Follow
If Puig wants to reach the offensive heights of his early career, he can’t do it the same way. His success in 2013-14 was buoyed by inflated BABIPs that he hasn’t been able to match since. Those BABIPs came with ground ball rates greater than 50%, low line drive rates, lots of popups, and good but not great speed. Maybe he can be a great hitter again, but he’s going to need to learn some lessons from his past.
Let’s start with what he’s doing well. Admittedly, you have to dig around his 2018 stats to find bright spots. Like I said, he’s been pretty bad so far. Despite Puig’s lackluster performance, his .339 expected wOBA tells a different story.
That means maybe there’s reason for optimism. The strikeout rate is good—the best of his career—and below league average. His walk rate is good enough, though it’s dropped a bit from his career-high 11.2% last year. He’s also spraying the ball across the field more so than before. Of course, keep in mind the small sample size (same for any of his 2018 stats).
Puig’s been a big popup hitter at times. He had the fourth highest infield fly ball rate in 2016 (minimum 100 PA). That isn’t good. He’s 29th right now, but he’s popping up almost as much as 2016. In 2017 he dropped it from 22.8 to 15.3%, which is still high, but better. Let’s compare Puig’s fly-ball launch angle data for those two seasons with a couple of nifty graphics from Baseball Savant:
The difference is pretty apparent. He located a lot more balls in that 20-30 degree range last year, while he had many more balls over 60 degrees in 2016.
This difference is also reflected in his actual and expected wOBA:
A .436 xWOBA! That’s fantastic, but will it carry over to 2018? I don’t know. But I do know his 0.00 wOBA on fly balls isn’t sustainable. Statcast says that his wOBA should be just .246. A big difference, but still not a good number. As you’d expect, if you look at only non-infield fly balls it gets better. If he’s still hitting a lot of popups, though, that won’t help much. If he’s going to have any success he’ll have to cut his 21.4 IFFB% down at least to the 15.2% he posted last year.
Another thing that’s held him back in the past is his low line drive rate. That’s one reason his BABIPs in 2013-14 came crashing down. So far in 2018 he’s having no such problem, posting a career high LD% of 21.4. Plus he’s hitting them hard—96.1 MPH on average. If he keeps this up there are good things in store.
Lastly, Yasiel Puig isn’t known for his plate discipline. Still, his early 2018 results are promising:
For one, his swinging strike rate is the lowest of his career. And he’s swinging at more pitches in the zone. While he may have swung at more pitches in the zone in 2016, he didn’t have a high zone contact rate to go along with it. On the other hand, this season he’s making contact with a lot of in-the-zone pitches (seventh highest in baseball).
Zone contact tends to be better than outside contact, but that doesn’t mean it’s good contact. Happily for Puig, it has been good so far. Just one more table, I promise:
Look at that! Statcast thinks his wOBA on in-the-zone pitches should be quite high. He’s hitting these balls hard, though the lower launch angle is perplexing—the angles on in-zone fly balls and ground balls are lower than before. Maybe the additional in-zone pitches he’s hitting are hit at lower angles than the ones he usually hits. A greater percentage of these balls are line drives and ground balls than before, and fewer are fly balls and popups, which might account for the launch angle change. Remember, though, there are few batted balls so far this season. I’m not sure what to make of this yet, but look for Puig to improve if he continues this trend.
So, with everything we’ve seen can Puig be an MVP? To be sure, if he has injury issues like he’s had in the past there’s not much he can do. The Dodgers were more careful with him last year, but if they limit his innings it could limit his value even if it does keep him from getting hurt.
All things considered, Puig’s probably not an MVP. His defense might not actually be as good as some metrics say. His baserunning might be horrible. And he might revert to the unsustainable approach from his early days.
I think A-Rod maybe was onto something, though. If the defense really was as good as many thought last year, if his baserunning struggles were a fluke, and if Puig can continue and improve on his 2017 offensive success while addressing the flaws, he might have the makings of an MVP.
Image via Arturo Padavilla, Wikipedia. Gif via USA Today. Stats via Fangraphs and Basebal Savant as of April 15, 2018.