By Jon Weisman
If you think you’ve got a firm idea of how Yasiel Puig will perform in 2016, you’re kidding yourself.
After going from mountain to valley to mountain in 2014, Puig’s 2015 wasn’t as good as it could have been, nor as bad as you’re probably remembering. It wasn’t so much off the charts as it was all over the charts.
Despite starting the 2015 season 2 for 18, Puig had a .380 on-base percentage and 25 straight plate appearances without a strikeout when he went on the disabled list for the first time April 26 with a left hamstring injury.
When he returned in June, the 25-year-old sizzled, going 13 for 23 with an .826 slugging percentage. On June 13, his OPS for the season was 1.044. That’s how good he was as recently as seven months ago.
Now, that performance was fueled by a friendly batting average on balls in play (BABIP), something that bottomed out for him (.219) in a larger sample size in ensuing weeks. Though July provided his most bounteous homer month in more than a year, his on-base percentage tumbled to .258, and he struck out 43 times — nearly 25 percent of his trips to the plate.
At the moment of despair, Puig caught some air — a .358 OBP (.361 BABIP) from August 9-27, featuring three of the 11 homers he hit all year. He had a 10-game hitting streak when, after dealing with right hamstring issues, he succumbed again to the disabled list August 28.
Without a minor-league rehab assignment, Puig was activated near the end of the season, going 1 for 5 in two irrelevant regular season games and 0 for 6 in three more relevant playoff games.
Maybe the inconsistency is the message. He’s hot and he’s cold, he’s yes and he’s no. For a player of his age and experience, it’s not at all unusual.
But here’s the most confounding bit of business I think I could have found. You might be under the impression that Puig can hammer a fastball but is easily fooled on breaking stuff — this generation’s Raul Mondesi. But take a look at what happened to his exit velocities as 2015 progressed.
- He was hitting offspeed balls hard because he was overswinging (and maybe missing a bunch of them in the process).
- He was focusing so hard on making good offspeed contact that he was late/weak on fastballs.
- Last year is just a writeoff because of his injuries.
At least in part, there’s a sample-size issue at play, because about 60 percent of the 1,212 pitches Puig saw last year were fastballs. For example, Puig saw 316 total pitches in August, no more than 125 of which were breaking/offspeed, even before you subtract the ones with which he made no contact.
Not only was Puig whiffing at roughly the same rate on fastballs as other pitches, he was at least as likely to foul off a fastball as anything else, in August as well as the entire year. If a pitch wasn’t a fastball, he was more likely to put the ball in play.
According to Fangraphs, his production against fastballs, cutters and sliders all went down in 2015.
What does this mean for 2016?
It means Puig is the Riddler. Perhaps that’s too simple a conclusion to have spent this much time driving toward. But it’s a reminder that he’s a player you need to keep an open mind about, when many might be ready to close.