Puig learning that spotlight isn't always fun
LA star is a lightning rod, in good times and bad
DENVER -- For all the focus and excitement that surrounds Dodgers center fielder Yasiel Puig, it is important to step back at times and remember that he remains a player with a ton of raw ability who is far from a finished product.
The Cuban defector was in the big leagues at the age of 22, making his debut last season 326 days after signing his first professional contract and with only 50 games of Minor League experience. Puig became an instant center of attention with his tape-measure home runs, sprinter speed and powerful arm.
In his second big league season, Puig is learning that being in the spotlight isn't always fun.
"He's a lightning rod when he is good, but he's also a lightning rod when he is bad," said manager Don Mattingly. "When he is going well, he's the center of attention for his flair for the dramatic. When he isn't going well, there's so much talk about, 'He hasn't done this, he hasn't done that.'"
Lately, it's been a lot of talk about what Puig hasn't been doing, and it eats at him.
"He just likes to go out and play the game," said Mattingly, "but obviously when you go bad for a long period of time, you feel it. You know you aren't producing. Nobody has to tell you."
That was apparent during the weekend when Puig admitted to The Los Angeles Times, "I have to get out of this in the next 15 or 16 games. If I don't get out of it now, I don't know if I'll get out of it for the playoffs."
There are signs of revival. Puig is 6-for-13 in his last five games, and in his final at-bat in the Dodgers' 10-4 loss to the Rockies at Coors Field on Tuesday night, he unloaded a two-run home run that left the park on a laser beam.
Puig, however, took third strikes for the second out in the fifth inning with runners on first and third and again for the final out in the sixth with the bases loaded and Colorado clinging to a 5-2 lead. Both times, he was visibly upset about the calls by plate umpire D.J. Reyburn, who showed much better restraint than Puig by walking up the first-base line and away from a potential confrontation.
But Puig had a single in the third inning and that home run, ending a 147 at-bat homer drought that dated back to July 31. He did drive in two runs, but that game him only six RBI since Aug. 5. And Puig is still only hitting .213 since Aug. 5, having struck out 33 times in 132 at-bats.
"His swing has been better lately," said Mattingly. "He has been a little more aggressive. For a while, he was caught in the middle, back and forth."
That's where the frustrations enter the picture. That's where the chirping at Reyburn surfaces, a product of Puig's frustration of being too passive on a full-count pitch with a run-producing situation. That's where the exchange with teammate Matt Kemp in the dugout the night before surfaces.
Mattingly down played the situation.
"Just family stuff," he said when asked about the Monday night dugout incident. "We're like the '72 A's."
Mattingly can only hope these Dodgers are like those A's, who fussed and feuded their way to three consecutive World Series titles.
Oakland had its Hall of Fame players, with the likes of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers. The A's did not, however, have any player who had the combination of raw talents that Puig possesses. Few players have had that kind of ability. The question is whether Puig can take that next step.
It's not about how far Puig can hit a ball or how strong an arm he can display or how quickly he can run the bases. It is a matter of doing the little things, which go largely unnoticed but can have such a big impact on the direction of a game.
It's understanding that the dramatic play isn't always the best play.
It's the bottom of the first on Tuesday night when Charlie Blackmon drew a leadoff walk and Josh Rutledge followed with a single to center. Blackmon, running on the pitch, was easily on his way to third base, but Puig, instead of throwing to second to hold Rutledge at first, uncorked a throw to third that had no chance of getting Blackmon, and Rutledge eased in to second, setting up a second run in that inning for the Rockies.
Little things, but they add up. They are things that are preached at the Minor League level. Puig, however, was fast-tracked to the big leagues because of impact ability, and he still has an educational process to endure.
That, said Mattingly, is a challenge that he and the coaching staff face, helping Puig master the finer points.
"For him to become a true star, we have to help him figure out the small things," said Mattingly. "He's trying to make great plays and he has the ability. It's about knowing when to go and when to stop. It's an area where we can really help him."
It's a little thing that can have a big impact.