Is Yasiel Puig Ready to Rebound in 2016?
Like him or not, Yasiel Puig is undoubtedly one of the most talented players in the league. Puig was signed out of Cuba back in 2012, and after spending just 63 games in the minors, he was called up to the big league club in 2013. It didn't take long for Puig’s immense potential to shine through at the highest level, as he posted an impressive 4.1 fWAR in just 104 games. At the time of calling Puig up, the Dodgers were one of the lowest scoring offenses in the league. With Puig in tow, the Dodgers finished a respectable 17th in runs scored, and elite production from their pitchers carrier them to a 92-70 record on the year.
Playing that season at just 22 years old, fans across the league were wondering just how good Puig could become. He was built like a linebacker, had an arm like a cannon, and possessed a rare speed-power combo that does not appear often. While his 2014 campaign did not quite match-up to his first major league season, he still posted double-digit steals and home runs with a strong .382 OBP. His slugging dipped a bit, but he struck out less and walked more on his way to a 5.3 WAR season. Then 2015 happened...
Puig’s 2015 numbers were easily the worst of his young career. Battling injury for a big chunk of the season, he only managed to play in 79 games. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) plummeted, which tanked his batting average and OBP. He was by no-means a bad player in 2015, but he was a far cry from what fans have come to expect. It is not only on field play, though, that factors into the Dodgers’ decision as to what they should do with their confounding star. There were questions about Puig’s thickening frame potentially contributing to his injury problems last year, and the ever-looming concerns over his off-field behavior cropped up again this offseason when Puig was involved in an incident at a bar in November.
With it sounding like the Dodgers are unwilling to sell-low on Puig, let’s take a look at whether he is primed to make that look like a smart decision.
By the Numbers
Before diving into what some of the causes of his 2015 production could be, let’s see how some of Puig’s counting-stats compare to his other seasons when extrapolated to a full 162-game slate:
Looking at his stats expanded to a full 162 game season (rounded to the nearest whole digit), his 2015 campaign certainly doesn't look terrible in comparison. He had far fewer hits, sure, but his home run totals fall in between his previous marks, his RBI-rate actually was at his career best, and his plate discipline does not seem to have horribly declined.
That said, the home runs are likely partly a product of Puig playing the 2015 campaign at a heftier weight than normal. The Dodgers made clear that a big part of Puig’s offseason plan would revolve around his conditioning, as there exist some concerns that his extra weight added strain to his body and contributed to his two separate hamstring injuries this past year. Injuries happen, and it is hard to peg them purely on Puig being thicker in 2015 than he had been in the past, but it is something that the Dodgers felt contributed at least in some way to his performance last year.
His home run numbers are also boosted by the fact that Puig hit more balls in the air than ever before. Coming into the season, he had a 32.4% fly-ball rate. That went up to 38.7% in 2015, taking him from a roughly league-average rate to well above. When Puig was playing with less bulk, his speed was a useful tool given that he put the ball on the ground a ton. League average sits at around 45%, and Puig had over 50% groundball rate his first two years in the league (more on this later).
Other than the lack of hits, what jumps out at you from these numbers is the relative lack of steals, but also the career-best RBI rate he posted in 2015. The steals can be pretty easily explained away by hamstring injuries that plagued him for most of the year, coupled with the aforementioned extra bulk. The RBI total may seem like a positive sign, but two factors largely point to it being meaningless. First, RBIs are generally a relatively poor indicator of an individual's performance as they are very dependent on the production of teammates who come before you in the lineup. Second is that Puig saw a lot more at-bats from spots later in the order in 2015, especially compared to 2013. Whereas he saw only 17 at-bats from the three-through-nine spot during his rookie season. Even with relatively fewer hits, his spot in the order bolstered his RBI production.
What is good to see is Puig’s walk rate staying relatively consistent with his career norms. He posted a 10.5% walk rate in 2014, which dropped to 8.4% last year. His rookie figure was at 8.3%, but with league-average sitting at 7.7% in 2015, it’s hard to complain too much about his batting eye. He swung at 34.8% of the pitches outside the zone he saw in 2015, which is within range of his 33.7% rate from his first two seasons.
It seems Puig’s 2015 production is a solid tick behind his previous production. The difference may not be drastic, but it is significant enough to warrant serious questions as to the root cause. There is one key-area that has yet to be touched on though...
Batted Ball Luck
Puig’s ability to maintain a ridiculously high BABIP showed itself to be possible in 2014. League average BABIP falls around .300 every year, and Puig crushed that mark with a .383 BABIP in 2013. Generally, a sky-high BABIP is a potential sign of impending regression, but in Puig’s case that did not quite come in 2014. His .356 mark in his second season was certainly a good bit lower, but still easily topped league-wide average and helped him to a .296 batting average that season.
Did Puig maintain this in 2015? Not so much.
Last season, his BABIP plummeted to .296. Essentially, he was average last year in a category he used to blow people out of the water in. It would be lazy to say this is telling of Puig’s true abilities, though. For a player that sports the speed Puig had, or at least trim-Puig, it is not impossible to surpass league-average BABIP on a consistent basis. Further contributing to his special-BABIP case is his propensity to hit ground balls. Speed combined with ground balls is usually a recipe for a higher than normal BABIP, and this was largely the case for Puig prior to last season.
His drop in BABIP, and in turn to a career-low .255 average, has to do with a few different things. First, he played on a bum hamstring (left or right at different points in the season) for much of the year, which is naturally going to sap one’s ability to leg out singles. Additionally, as said before, Puig lofted fly balls at a rate well above his career norm. Popping the ball up does not endear one to a high BABIP, and Puig paid the price for a changed approach last season. Not to mention, Puig made hard-contact on 31.3% of his batted balls last year, compared to a career average of 35.7% entering the season. His increase in fly balls hurt him in this category as well in all likelihood, and this seems to have played a significant role in his down season.
By no stretch was Puig terrible in 2015. Putting up 1.5 WAR in essentially half a season is better than many players will ever perform, but Puig is not expected to play like just any player. His natural talents are immense, and he has put together two all-star caliber seasons in only three years in the league.
It seems unlikely, at this point, that the Dodgers will trade Puig. For good reason, as new manager Dave Roberts could potentially mesh with him better than the ousted Don Mattingly. When it comes to a talent like Puig, you have to at least give it a shot with a new manager and clubhouse environment, and hope the concerns of old begin to fade away.
Shedding weight could do Puig well this offseason, and a slimmer Puig a la 2013-14 could help him raise his BABIP to the previously high marks he had achieved. Going back to putting more balls on the ground and letting his speed help him out should bring back his numbers of old. Not to mention the trimmer figure could keep pressure of his hamstrings, both of which sent him to the DL last season.
Maybe Puig will continue his trend of hitting more fly balls, and the injury bug and off-field concerns will continue to haunt him, but given his contract and previously shown production, the Dodgers would be wise in holding onto Puig. With a healthy offseason Puig has a chance to return to form in 2016.