You think it was cold? I can't tell. You think it was cold? I can't tell.

One Incredible Year of Yasiel Puig

puig-points_2014-04-01Obligatory! It’s been a year since Yasiel Puig was called up, and so every media outlet you can think of has a story about his first year. We won’t be any different. Imagine if this Dodger site just glossed over it? No, thank you.

One year ago today, the Dodgers were 23-32, 8.5 games out of first place. The season was circling the drain. Don Mattingly had been “nearly fired” about eight times. Prominent writers had already called the season a failure. (Sorry, Eric! I once suggested that the Dodgers should have traded Andre Ethier for Manny Ramirez rather than Andy LaRoche.) After two months of watching Puig destroy the Southern League (.313/.383/.599) amid explanations that he wasn’t ready on or off the field, the Dodgers could wait no longer. Puig was coming. We were, needless to say, excited:

There is a not-at-all small part of me that really considered naming this thread “Puigs @ Puigs, Puig 3, 201Puig,” with “Puig” listed in the lineups over there eighteen times like he was Bugs Bunny from the old cartoon. That should give you a small idea of the excitement that’s hanging over him tonight, to the point that they could replace “Dodgers” with “Puigs” on the front of the jersey and some fans would still find it slightly conservative.

It’s really inconceivable how high the expectations were for Puig, to the point that there was no early way he was going to be able to reach them. By definition, he was going to be a disappointment, no matter what he did.

Except… he wasn’t. In his very first game, he had two hits and ended the night with this:

I’m still not sure the runner was out. It doesn’t matter. In his second game, he hit two homers. By the end of his first four games, he had four. It took him over a month to be hitting under .400. Despite the baserunning mistakes and fielding miscues and missed cutoff men and bat flips and the backlash and the backlash to the backlash and the “threat to the establishment” or whatever, he was a four-win player in just 100 games.

But this isn’t about what he did in 2013, because you know that. It’s about what he’s done in his first year in the big leagues, and the fact that his unbelievable first month was’t the high point… it was merely the beginning. For example! In the one year since he came up, there are two — two! — players who have been more productive at the plate than he has.

wRC+, last calendar year
1) Mike Trout, 177
2) Miguel Cabrera, 172
3) Puig, 171

He’s been worth 7.1 WAR in that time, fourth only because his defense hasn’t always been loved by the metrics. That’s awesome. You know this is awesome. How awesome? Consider this: in the entire history of the Brooklyn / Los Angeles Dodgers, there have been three seasons — ever — with a wRC+ higher than Puig’s 171:

wRC+, Dodger history
1) Mike Piazza, 1997, 183
2) Pedro Guerrero, 1985, 181
3) Gary Sheffield, 2000, 173

I understand that’s not a fair comparison, of course, because we’re using two partial seasons for Puig and full seasons for everyone else. I can’t say with full and utmost certainty that, say, Duke Snider didn’t have a better period of 365 days. But it almost doesn’t matter, does it? The fact that we’re even discussing this probably tells you all that you need to know. And if I can continue with that somewhat flawed comparison, taking into account that this was Puig’s first year…

wRC+, MLB rookies, min. 250 PA
1) Joe Jackson, 1911, 184
2) Puig’s 2013-14, 171
2) Bernie Carbo, 1970, 170

Of course, I’ve lumped the two partial years of Puig into one. That’s a bit overly simplistic, because as you most certainly already know, he’s getting better and better as time goes on. Take, for example, his plate discipline. From the incomparable Baseball Savant, here’s a look at Puig’s monthly swing-and-miss numbers. The way you want to read this is the orange line first, because that’s 2013, and you can see that he peaked in July, then steadily decreased for the rest of the year. In 2014 (blue), his highest month has been better than four separate 2013 months.

puig_monthly_whiff

He was great even when he barely knew what he was doing. Now, he’s learning. In the last month alone, he’s been worth two wins, and has the second-highest wRC+ only to the incomparably red-hot Edwin Encarnacion. It’s difficult to think about what this team would look like without him.

And yeah, there have been speed bumps. There was the pair of arrests for speeding, the reports of clubhouse discontent, the benching for arriving late to a game less than two months ago. (There’s also the bat flips, which not only don’t bother me, but which I love.) But there haven’t been nearly as many on-field mistakes, and when you think about the issues circling this team right now — the whole Matt Kemp situation, Hanley Ramirez‘ contract, Miguel Olivo biting off Alex Guerrero‘s ear, the bullpen troubles — you realize you don’t hear a lot about Puig’s extracurricular activities.

Remember, at the time of the $42m deal, some observers didn’t think Puig was a top-10 talent in any organization; at least one team didn’t think he was worth even a million dollars. Granted, it was so difficult to get any scouting reports out of Cuba that all of this was really guesswork at best, but one might argue that at 7.1 WAR already in the books, Puig has paid off most or all of that contract already. He’s been worth all the heartburn, and then some.

This is a guy with the physical ability to do this, even if it was a foul ball…

…and this:

… while still generally terrifying you every single day that you’ll wake up and find out that he’s been arrested or assaulted or deported. And maybe we will. I’m not arguing that he’s a saint. It’s not necessarily an easy ride with Puig, but it’s certainly a fun one — and, as we’re very clearly seeing on the field, a worthwhile one. He’s a thrill ride every day. He’s a viable MVP candidate. He’s a never-ending source of, well, everything. Viva Puig!


About

Mike wrote daily for over six long years (2007-13) about the Dodgers at Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness, which was named 2011′s “Best Sports Blog” by LA Weekly. He can currently be found writing multiple times per week at FanGraphs and ESPN, along with producing and editing for Sports On Earth. He lives in New York City and will probably be asleep or on vacation when awesome things happen.