There is no doubting the superstardom of Yasiel Puig. Since being called up to the big league roster, the Dodgers have been revitalized, going 33-16 and jumping into first place in the NL West. With the one-of-a-kind story of how the Cuban defector ended up in LA and with the market that it is, a star was born. The phenom is currently hitting .372 with 10 HR and won the Rookie and Player of the Month in the National League in June. Puig carries himself with an arrogance and hard nosed style that fits the bright lights of LA, as ESPN, which now does a large amount of its broadcasting from LA, has eaten him up. Fans are in love with his story and his play, even earning him arguments to be an all star.
Puig-Mania brings up thoughts of a 2005 debut that also captivated the baseball world. In 2005 Jeff Francoeur debuted for the Atlanta Braves on July 7, 2005. Through 37 games he carried a .360 AVG and was dubbed "The Natural" by a famous Sports Illustrated cover (curse much). Francoeur finished the season with a .300 AVG with 14 HR, but his moniker of "The Natural" never stuck with a few seasons later he was an undisciplined free swinger who could hit .230 with some power.
Now why are these two so similar? It comes down to a look at the numbers, which according to ESPN, never lie.
Batting average on balls in play in a statistic that is growing in use thanks to the sabermetric community. Advanced stats can show how the ball is falling and are becoming extremely valuable in the evaluation of players in the minor leagues and free agency, as seen with Billy Beane and Bill James' work with the Boston Red Sox. This statistic is all about you're batting average everytime you put a ball into the field of play. The average BABIP is around .300 in the major leagues, meaning 30% of the balls you put into play produce a base hit.
In 2005 Jeff Francoeur had a BABIP of .337. As you can see, this is a pretty significant jump from the major league average. Some luck and uncontrollable outcomes come into play here, but it can be seen that Francoeur's hot start can be attributed to a but of unsustainable luck. His next best season, 2007, produced the very BABIP. As his hot start came back down to earth, his BABIP was under the league average, showing he was a bit unlucky, but some other factors we'll get into also contributed to his demise.
Yasiel Puig currently carries a BABIP of .465. Let that sink in. About 47% of the time Puig puts a ball in play he is getting a hit. Now I get the argument that the best players will have very high BABIP (see Miguel Cabrera), but .465 is ridiculous. That .372 AVG of Puig will drop significantly once people start catching the ball and his luck runs out.
In recent years most fans know the widespread reputation of Jeff Francoeur as a free swinger. I'm all for swinging the bat, and I hate looking at strikes, but you have to have some discipline and patience to run up pitch counts as well as get on base. Francoeur didn't record his first major league walk until his 128th plate appearance. That's awful. Joey Votto is a master of swinging at pitches in the zone and knowing when to take a walk, earning him a reputation as one of the game's most complete players. Francoeur is basically the opposite. His BB/K ratio for his career is 0.28. In 2005, his phenom season, the ratio was 0.19. That's brutal. For his career Francoeur swings at 39.1% of pitches outside the zone that he sees, and makes contact on 65.3% of those pitches. No wonder Francoeur is walking at such a low rate and making more outs. It is a rarity to find a guy like Vladimir Guerrero who is a fabulous "bad ball" hitter, and Francoeur, who again become a .230 hitter, shows this trend. Swinging at bad pitches leads to bad contact, which increases your odds of making an out.
Yasiel Puig is very similar to Francoeur when it comes to plate discipline. Puig's BB/K ratio is 0.22, which is quite low. He swings at 40.7% of pitches he sees outside the strike zone, making contact on 52.4% of those pitches. Since more film has come up on him pitchers are striking out Puig more often, as they are relying on more breaking pitches outside the zone to catch him chasing. In 87 at bats this month, Puig has struck out 30 times while walking 7 times. For Puig to maintain a high level of play he is going to have to improve plate discipline. It is amazing that his BABIP is so high even though he makes contact so often with pitches outside the strike zone as well. His OBP and average are sure to continue to fall as this season progresses.
Willing to Change?
The question to pose now is if Puig is willing to slightly change his game in order to be able to sustain some success in the future. There is no doubting his natural ability, as he has a rare body, incredible speed, and superb arm strength. Francoeur, though comparable, does not have the raw athleticism. Francoeur also has not made enough progress with his approach and changed his game enough to maintain some semblance of success in the big leagues. Sure he can still provide occasional power and plays excellent defense, but he hurts the overall ability of a lineup to consistently score runs.
This is what I fear with Puig. Puig will need to become slightly more disciplined at the plate and listen to his major league coaching staffs. We have all seen him go rogue, as his has a cocky swagger that leads him to make mistakes. Let's face it, Puig can steal bases, but he's a terrible base runner currently. He tries to stretch plays that aren't there, creates outs for little reason, and hurts his team on the base paths when he doesn't listen to the coaches put on the field to put him in position to succeed. If Puig is willing to put his arrogance aside and listen to Don Mattingly and his staff he can be an all star at this level. I fear though that Puig will become the next "remember him" guy, as his raw statistics drop to the levels that are more deserving of how he is playing the game. And by the way, Hanley Ramirez, who's return is also unsustainable, has been better over the same time period. It hasn't all been Puig. Just don't be surprised when this guy falls back to earth.