Entering 2013, the Dodgers had quite the outfield logjam with three major league players under long-term contracts, as well as two prospects who looked like they could easily make an impact within the next year or two.
The name with the most buzz out of those five outfielders was Cuban import Yasiel Puig, who tore up Spring Training before being sent to the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts for more seasoning and maturity. Fans wanted him, and they wanted him in the bigs now. But while lots hated the decision to send him down, it was probably the right call, as Puig had never played above High-A before heading to Tennessee. He only had 59 plate appearances with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes and 95 plate appearances of minor-league ball total entering ’13.
Following injury after injury to the major league outfield, the club promoted Puig; he made his debut on June 3, and #ManBearPuig was born. Puig then hit his first career long ball the next night, ending that game with two homers and five driven in. He capped an amazing first week with his first career grand slam, a shot that practically left Vin Scully speechless.
But Puig’s season wasn’t all double plays and grand slams and mariposas (Cuba’s national flower … history degree!). There were rookie mistakes and growing pains, as with 99.9% of the rookies who play any sport professionally. Puig ran himself into some outs on the bases, missed the cutoff man every now and then, and went through some slumps at the dish as he learned the strike zone and plate discipline. But make no mistake about it: he did in fact grow and made progress as a player, despite what most in the mainstream media would have you believe.
His BB% improved in each of his first three months (3.7/7.6/11.6) and remained in double digits in September and October, when the games “really matter”. After a rough July, he cut down on his strikeouts by 10% in August. He hit to all fields, posting OPS totals of 1.047 and 1.099 to center and right field, respectively. He could stand to swing at a few less pitches out of the zone (38.9%, MLB average is 31%) unless he can up his O-Contact% in the years to come (52.9%, MLB average is 66.6%). So there is still work to be done, improvements to strive for, and adjustments to be made.
Defensively, DRS and UZR absolutely adored Puig in right field, crediting him with 10 and 4.7 runs saved, respectively, which would put him on pace to be a plus defender even with all those mistakes. He also displayed improved instincts on the bases at times — a promising sign for the future — but for the time being, he shouldn’t be stealing bases until he can do so at a far greater clip than 58%.
His mistakes garnered national attention and were mostly blown way, way out of proportion, though Puig could certainly tame his aggression at times. Selective aggression is always a good idea, and there are plenty of players and coaches around to help Yasiel through the process.
All in all, Puig’s final slash line came in at .319/.391/.534/.925 with a .398 wOBA and wRC+ of 160. He smashed 42 extra-base hits, had eight outfield assists, and hit no matter what spot in the lineup he was penciled in at. Puig was one of the best, if not the best, hitters plate appearance for plate appearance in the National League this year — of guys with at least 400 trips to the dish — as he led the league with a 160 wRC+. Yes, I wouldn’t bank on his BABIP remaining at .383 forever, though he’s plenty fast enough to continue getting those infield singles and beating out close plays for a while. Some regression in 2014 is likely, but he’s still an exceptionally valuable piece on an extremely team-friendly deal (five years and $26 million remaining).
Puig just put together a bumpy but incredible ~4.5 WAR rookie campaign, and he’s going to make just $2 million in 2014. At the height of his current contract, he’ll make $7.5 million … in 2018. In a baseball world where the going rate for a win is around $6 million, his bargain contract makes the franchise right fielder all the more valuable. An outfield of Puig, a healthy Matt Kemp, and anybody else looks mighty fine moving forward, so hopefully we get to see it in 2014.