When a player like Yasiel Puig bursts onto the scene the way he did in 2013, expectations of not just fans but those in the game tend to be unrealistic. That’s what happened with Puig in 2015 and ’16. He was hampered by constant nagging injuries, but folks were still expecting him to be the 2013-14 version of himself.
What we’re seeing in 2017 is likely the real Yasiel Puig. And I like it.
Puig has enjoyed a bounce-back season, as he has already hit a career-best 21 home runs and is playing elite-level defense in right field. He’s also walking at a better than 10 percent rate while he has seen his strikeout rate dip to a tick under 18 percent. Despite the improvements, his batting average (lol) and on-base percentage haven’t enjoyed similar positive trends. His .258 average would be the second-worst of his career and his .332 OBP is just nine points better than last season. The biggest reasons for this are the fact he’s hitting dongs and, at the same time, getting BABIP’d.
He has talked about hitting the ball in the air so he gets paid. He’s right (just look at Justin Turner), but did you know his ground ball rate is 50.7 percent, which would be the highest of his career? Did you also know his fly ball rate dropped 1.5 percent while his line drive rate has fallen almost a point? He’s having a weird season, but he’s doing so in the best possible way.
His .221 ISO would be his career-best, just ahead of the .215 mark he had in his ridiculous debut season (that put unfair expectations on his career since that time). In that season, he hit a lot of grounders (50.2 percent) and had his worst fly ball rate of his career. Yet, he had the best HR/FB rate, until this season. It was 21.8 percent in 2013. It’s currently at 21.9 percent. While he’s a ways off from Aaron Judge and his 37.2 percent, it’s still a Top 30 rate among qualified MLBers.
Basically, Puig’s pulling the ball, and he’s pulling the ball with authority. Some say he’s at his best when he has an up-the-middle/right-center field approach. That still may be true, but it isn’t the best for the kind of player he is now — a power hitter.
Puig’s exit velocity on pulled fly balls and line drives is down a bit from last season (90.9 MPH from 94.3 MPH), but he’s pulling with more frequency, which helps offset the lower exit velo. But if you limit it to just home runs, his 106 MPH exit velo is well up from the 103 MPH mark he had last season.
His 2013 home run spray chart looks more similar to the 2016 version, as 11 of his 19 home runs were hit to left- or left-center field. This season, he has just one home run to the right of center field. It has been a remarkable transformation.
On the whole, his average fly ball distance (including line drives and popups) is up by 15 feet to 282 feet. Still, it’s weighted down a bit because he still hits his fair share of infield popups — 14, good for a 14.6 IFFB%, which is 22nd-worst in the majors. But if you compare that to last season’s 22.8 percent rate, even that’s a marked improvement.
Puig will probably never be the player he was in his rookie season (5.7 WAR/600 PA). He might not even be the 2014 version of himself. But if he’s this version — the home run-hitting, smarter base-running (even if BaseRuns disagrees) and elite defender in right field, I can live with that. And so can the Dodgers.