Going Deep: Yasiel Puig

Yasiel Puig and the Reds are off to a disappointing start. Will the "Wild Horse" make a run in his contract year?

If you’re a reader of Pitcher List, you’re already familiar with Yasiel Puig. His six sometimes-tumultuous seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers produced a pair of World Series appearances and an assortment of lowlights as well. But, as we all know, Puig was the key player in a holiday season trade between the Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds that ignited a slow off-season news cycle last winter. As the 28-year old Cuban native switched teams for the first time, on the the eve of a free agent season, optimism ran high in the Cincinnati market. The hope was that Puig could anchor the middle of the 2019 lineup as a retooled Reds team hoped to contend in the rugged National League Central.

Puig has continued to find headlines (and a brief one-game suspension last week), but has yet to find his groove in the batters box. Following a Monday off-day, the Reds prepared for a brief three-game homestand with an 8-13 record on Tuesday morning. They are currently last in the National League Central, and, even though the season remains in April, playoff hopes have now become a longshot. With 20+ games in the books, the “it’s still early” lines are fading all over MLB, and Puig’s Tuesday stat line of .164, 2 HR, 9 RBI is starting to take on a glare. He has added two stolen bases and four runs scored to the ledger, but, overall, it has not been the start that anyone was hoping for. Will Puig come around as the weather warms in hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark? Could a surge make the Reds think about extending him? How soon will Puig become a trade chip if things don’t improve in Cincinnati? All of these questions revolve around what is going wrong right now, and whether or not the multi tooled right fielder nicknamed “Wild Horse” can improve. Let’s take a closer look.

 

Earning The Breaks

 

Puig’s profile page at Baseball Savant indicates that his 2019 start is “earned,” and not due to hard luck factors that sometimes come into play. He has struck out 20 times and walked just twice in 67 at-bats. His xBA (Expected Batting Average) of .197 is just a marginal increase from his actual average. If you’re new to advanced stats or our Pitcher List platform, here’s a primer on xBA.

In an off-day mailbag article posted on Monday, the Reds’ MLB.com beat writer, Mark Sheldon, nicely summarized the specifics of the strikeouts. While Puig’s current strikeout rate of 28.6% is well above his career average of 19.6%, Sheldon also spotlighted a cause for optimism, found in Puig’s exit velocity rate. That current rate of 88.1 mph is right in line with his career norms. Puig has also increased the launch angle of his swing to a career high 17.1 degrees, which may very well be tied to his early strikeouts. The launch angle has also clicked for him a few times, including a notable longball off former teammate Clayton Kershaw last week at Dodger Stadium.  Below, a snapshot of various batted ball stats going back to Puig’s 2015 season is listed, with a career total at the bottom. The key metrics discussed here are highlighted in blue.

 

Statcast Statistics: Yasiel Puig (BaseballSavant.com)

 
Season Pitches Batted Balls Barrels Barrel % Exit Velocity Launch Angle XBA XSLG WOBA XWOBA XWOBACON Hard Hit % K % BB %
2015 1212 217 20 9.2 89.3 12.1 .256 .436 .328 .328 .383 36.9 21.2 8.4
2016 1291 263 17 6.5 90.2 11.8 .257 .402 .320 .317 .361 40.3 20.1 6.5
2017 2119 404 38 9.4 88.4 10.6 .275 .496 .349 .366 .409 36.8 17.5 11.2
2018 1725 320 34 10.6 89.4 12.4 .278 .473 .350 .349 .405 40.7 19.2 8.1
2019 249 48 5 10.4 88.1 17.1 .197 .372 .207 .250 .335 35.0 28.6 2.9
ALL 6596 1252 114 9.1 89.2 11.8 .265 .454 .334 .340 .390 38.5 19.6 8.6
MLB 32632 6.2 87.4 11.0 .252 .408 .317 .318 .370 34.1 21.4 8.2

ALL: All-time career numbers for Yasiel Puig, 2013-Present.

 

Speculation in the off-season centered around the perceived advantage that Puig and his trade companion Matt Kemp might exploit at their new home park, Great American Ball Park. But the Reds often find themselves in cold Midwest weather early in the season, home and away, as they travel both the NL Central and East Coast. I scanned a limited sample of home games to see if a career West Coast player might be scuffling in the cold. However, that factor has to be dismissed this year. I was very surprised to find out that the Reds have already played in two home games where the first pitch temperature was at 70 degrees or higher (Including the March 28 Opening Day game!?). Just one game in Cincinnati has been played in sub-40 degree weather. Puig went o-for-3 in that March 31 contest, but that can’t be weighted heavily. Home has not been where the heart is thus far, as the Reds emerged from the Monday off-day with just eight of their first 21 games played at G.A.B.P. They went 4-4 in those games and they leave town again on Thursday night for a weekend set in St. Louis.

 

To Puig Or Not To Puig?

 

I certainly think that things will get better for Puig. His favorable launch angle could sync up with the home yard as the Reds start to get into a more extended routine at Great American Ballpark. Combine that factor with a current BABIP of .196 that is well below his career mark of .315, and a career batting average of .276 well above his present day B.A., and you can see positive regression coming for Puig.

However, I’m not sure things will get dramatically better. In 2018, hip and oblique injuries limited Puig to 125 games. Although he still managed to put up a fantasy line of .267, 23 HR, 63 RBI with 15 stolen bases (in 20 SB attempts), one wonders what might have been if Puig had been able to add another month of action to his totals. If either of those injuries returns this year, he may find himself again shut down for an extended period. Health has been a recurring theme throughout his career, as Puig has averaged just 119 games played per season from 2013-2018. He did play in 152 games two years ago. Projection systems seem to be factoring in Puig’s aforementioned injury history, as ZIPS and Steamer both peg him at 117 games played for the rest of the season. Both have low double digit steal totals for the rest of 2019, with ZIPS projecting 20 HR, 62 RBI and Steamer forecasting 23 HR, 71 RBI.

If all goes well on the health front, Puig could of course surpass those projections. But the track record says there’s some sort of an absence coming. And if the Reds aren’t able to make a push very soon in a stacked division, the single date trade deadline will be looming as well. As a reminder, July 31 is now the only trade deadline in MLB, and struggling teams will have to make decisions faster, with no August waiver trades to fall back on. Puig could find himself traded into a part-time or bench bat role as a rental acquisition for a contender. If you’re playing the “glass half full” scenario, he could also play himself into an extension, a decision that would almost certainly have to be made during the season by the Reds’ front office. Can Puig still have a solid season in this crucial contract year, in line with his recent past? Absolutely. Is it going to be a great season? The early start of both Puig and his team, coupled with other factors, makes that feel unlikely to me.

Hard to quantify as well is the absence of the injured Scooter Gennett, who has yet to appear in a regular season game for the Reds, and the trickle down effect that his absence has on a still-talented Cincinnati lineup. There could certainly be an effect in how opposing pitchers can go after a middle of the order bat such as Puig. Although he was shuffled around and moved in and out of spots, Puig played in several deep, relentless lineups in Los Angeles.

As fantasy league owners, and as fans of the game, most of us are dreaming about that ’30-100′ season that Puig has always been capable of producing, with game breaking speed mixed in. However, I think that dream will have to wait for another year.

(Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

Matt McLaughlin

Former play by play broadcaster in the independent minor leagues. Also very involved in the business-media relations aspects of the game during that stint. Freelance public address announcer-sports reporter in the Chicago area. Hungry for new challenges in baseball-fantasy baseball. Alum of Ohio University.

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