Fantasy Baseball: Is It Time to Give Up on Yasiel Puig?
This is the year Yasiel Puig puts it all together.
Or so we've told ourselves year after year ever since Puig burst onto the scene in 2013. Once expected to be the next big thing, expectations for Puig have steadily dropped every season since.
Last year continued this trend, a ho-hum season in which he managed just 368 plate appearances and slashed .263/.323/.416 with 11 home runs, 45 runs, 45 RBI's, 5 stolen bases, and a 102 wRC+.
He was plagued by hamstring issues for a second straight season, and even got demoted to the minors for the month of August. A regular subject of trade rumors, Puig is no longer guaranteed a starting job on the Los Angeles Dodgers. And this isn't even getting started on any potential off-field baggage that may follow him.
The one piece of good news? The cost to do business with Puig is at an all-time low. NFBC drafts have his average draft position (ADP) outside the top 200 overall, and outside the top 50 outfielders. He's still just 26 years old.
But even at this depressed price, is Puig worth it anymore? Should we finally accept that this is who he is, and 2013 was a complete fluke?
Or is this the year he puts it all together?
How the Mighty Have Fallen
Although Puig only had 432 plate appearances in 2013, he filled the stat sheet with 19 home runs, 11 stolen bases, and a .319/.391/.534 slash line. His 160 wRC+ ranked fourth among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances that season. He has yet to eclipse any of those marks since.
Puig has only surpassed 600 plate appearances once (2014), so at first glance it's easy to blame his stagnant career on injuries. Certainly his drop in stolen bases are likely a direct result of his recent hamstring issues. However, there are some disturbing trends that show there's more to it than that.
Puig has seemingly regressed as a hitter every season since that eye-opening 2013 campaign. Not only has his isolated power (ISO) steadily dropped, but his batting average has cratered, as well.
A look at his plummeting BABIP might lead one to conclude that the drop in average is simply a case of luck evening out, but Puig's batted-ball profile indicates it's no coincidence. Over the years, Puig's soft-hit rate (Soft%) and hard-hit rate (Hard%) have moved in the opposite -- and wrong -- directions.
|Year||Line-Drive Rate||Ground-Ball Rate||Fly-Ball Rate||Soft%||Hard%|
Puig has never had an elite line-drive rate (21% is around league average), but more line drives, ground balls, and hard-hit balls typically lead to a higher BABIP. Thus, his batted-ball profile in 2013 suggested he might be able to consistently maintain an above average BABIP. Instead, his line-drive rate has never been above 17.1% since, and his ground-ball rate has dropped below 50% the last two seasons.
Worse yet, last year Puig had an astronomical 22.8% infield fly-ball rate (IFFB%), an absolute batting average killer. His walk rate also dropped to 6.5% last season, well short of his career average (8.7%). These are all concerning signs for Puig's future ability to hit for average.
Some of Puig's struggles may have come from an inability to hit the fastball, something his manager Dave Roberts observed. FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan provided an excellent analysis of this early last season, concluding that pitchers were getting Puig out by following a traditional script of throwing fastballs inside and off-speed pitches away.
While hardly an unusual strategy, it worked with great effect. Puig struggled to generate power against hard stuff, as shown by his limited ISO against four-seam fastballs (.119), sinkers (.132), and cutters (.063). It's no surprise then that he also saw the highest percentage of fastballs in his career (67.5%).
Based on the above, we have an injury-prone player suffering from declining power and contact skills, with a fairly simple strategy to getting him out. That sounds like an easy player to give a thumbs down to.
Of course, it wouldn't be Puig to make things that straightforward.
Is There Any Hope?
Puig did show improvements late in the season, particularly after he returned from his August minor league banishment.
In September, Puig showed a big jump in ISO, a month in which he hit 4 of his 11 home runs. Maybe the power he once flashed in 2013 is still hiding in there somewhere?
The power spike came in just 65 plate appearances, so small sample size warnings are valid, but from June onward he also exhibited across-the-board improvements in his slash line and wRC+.
His walk rate also improved considerably late in the season, and the brunt of his infield fly-ball rate issues occurred in the first two months. Both improvements are hopefully signs that his walk rate and infield fly-ball rate will return to their career norms in 2017.
It's dangerous to put too much stock in a small sample size of production, but it shows that while 2016 was disappointing, Puig shouldn't be considered a lost cause yet.
So You're Telling Me There's a Chance
Given his recent hamstring issues, it's no surprise that Puig's Steamer Projections aren't terribly optimistic about his projected plate appearances (491), but they're otherwise fairly bullish for a player who has failed to live up to expectations.
The projections give a baseline of 19 home runs, 62 runs, 65 RBI's, 7 stolen bases, and .284 average. They also predict a strong .197 ISO and 126 wRC+. These are all numbers that far exceed Puig's production the last two seasons.
If this all seems rather generous, it is, but it once again reminds us of how much potential Puig still possesses at just 26 years of age. His batted-ball profile suggests that he hits too many ground balls to be a huge power threat, but if he can stay healthy and improve his hard-hit rate, he is capable of matching and exceeding those projections.
That said, we simply can't ignore his injuries, general mediocrity, or uncertain playing time. There is risk for sure, and at this point, Puig's history shows that disappointment is still more likely than not.
But in NFBC drafts, Puig's ADP slots him around the 19th round of 12-team leagues, next to outfielders like Randal Grichuk, Max Kepler and Hunter Renfroe, all players being drafted on potential over experience. This is the point in a draft where you can afford to take a chance, and Puig is exactly that.
So, is it time to give up on Yasiel Puig? We're pretty close, but the bargain price still keeps him interesting. We can no longer expect Puig to become the player we thought he was in 2013, but he's young enough to surprise us yet. Don't go out of your way to reach for him, but if he's sitting there in the late rounds, he's worth a look.
After all, maybe this is the year he puts it all together.