How Puig can bounce back this year

Free agent OF has some adjustments to make

January 11th, 2020

Depending on your point of view, was one of the most thrilling or one of the most maddening players of the past decade. Maybe both. But either way, he certainly has made an impression on the baseball world.

Here’s the thing, though: For all the hoopla and memorable moments, Puig’s production of late has been rather ordinary, and that has made him something less than a hot name this offseason. There certainly has been interest in Puig, reportedly including from the White Sox and Marlins, but he figures to land a significantly smaller contract than two fellow free agent outfielders of a similar age, and .

Then again, the image of star-level Puig sticks in the mind. And he still shows enough flashes of that brilliance -- a crushed homer here, an eye-popping throw there -- that a team could make a modest investment this winter and dream on a return to glory. Puig only just turned 29 last month, so it’s difficult not to feel like his solid floor comes with a tantalizing ceiling.

Yet it’s clear that for that to come to fruition, something has to change. Here is a look at Puig’s path, and how he might be able to engineer a rebound in 2020.

Started from the top

Puig made an immediate impression upon emerging with the Dodgers in June 2013 and set off on an absolutely blistering pace that helped push the club to its first of what is now seven straight division titles. The Cuba native slashed .443/.473/.745 in his first 27 big league games and ultimately finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year Award race to José Fernández, despite playing only 104 games.

The next year, Puig was an All-Star and ranked in the top 10 in the NL in several categories. He finished the 2014 campaign at age 23, with nearly 10 WAR (per Baseball-Reference) and a 151 OPS+ (100 is average) in his first 252 MLB games.

The historical precedent was rich.

Juan Soto (140 OPS+ in his first two seasons) would now join this list, and it remains to be seen what the future holds for him. But of the 10 other players below, besides Puig, seven are or will be in the Hall of Fame. Two others had “Hall of Very Good” careers.

Then there is Curt Blefary, the 1965 American League Rookie of the Year. Blefary, per his SABR biography, “had three productive seasons for the Orioles before his intertwined personal demons, alcohol and anger, overcame his terrific natural ability.” He was traded four times between 1968-72, and then was done as a big leaguer.

It might be tempting to tie the drop in Puig’s numbers since 2014 to some of his on-field antics, or off-the-field reputation. But a look at the cold, hard numbers reveals two key factors dragging Puig down. If he can correct one or both, his next team could reap the rewards.

Handle the heat

There are two rather eye-popping, interrelated trends that have developed over Puig’s career. Since his rookie season, his exposure to fastballs has skyrocketed, while his production against them has plummeted.

Since 2015, Puig has seen the eighth-highest rate of fastballs (65.8%) -- including four-seamers, two-seamers/sinkers and cutters -- out of 281 batters (minimum 5,000 total pitches). His .339 wOBA against them during that time is below the MLB average (.347) and ranks in roughly the bottom quarter of the 290 batters with at least 750 plate appearances.

The glass-half-full view is that Puig has excelled against secondary pitches, relative to the rest of the league. His .350 wOBA against breaking and offspeed stuff since 2017 ranks 13th in MLB (minimum 250 plate appearances), just ahead of , , and . It’s not just that pitchers are attacking a weakness when they give Puig the heat, but also that they are going away from a strength.

On one hand, breaking ball usage is on the rise across the Majors, and Puig perhaps can combat that better than most. On the other hand, pitchers also are embracing the power of the elevated four-seam fastball, and that has been a particular sore spot for Puig, whose production against them in the past five seasons is among the lowest in the game (.210 average, .365 slugging, .280 wOBA).

Adjustments are difficult, but if Puig can find a way to combat this approach, it would go a long way to restoring some of his lost value.

Pray to the BABIP gods?

Puig’s historic early production was bolstered by a .366 batting average on balls in play, one of the highest in the Majors during that time. But Puig has not been able to recreate that success, even as his contact and strikeout rates have remained fairly steady. His BABIP over the past five seasons is .294, or a bit below the MLB average.

Perhaps his early BABIP was never sustainable, but compare Puig to three contemporaries of similar ages who also enjoyed a sky-high BABIP in those years (Each is a bit faster than Puig, but not dramatically so).

(age 22-23): .366 BABIP in 2013-14, .294 since
(age 24-25): .368 BABIP in 2013-14, .333 since
(age 21-22): .363 BABIP in 2013-14, .338 since
(age 21-22): .363 BABIP in 2013-14, .357 since

Statcast did not debut until 2015, so while Puig’s sprint speed has held firm since then (around the 80th percentile), we don’t know what it was over his first two seasons. Perhaps there was a large dropoff at that point, and indeed, Puig’s rate of infield singles has declined since then.

A speed boost thanks to some hard work in the offseason certainly couldn’t hurt. But the better path to improvement may be via how Puig is hitting the ball.

Over the past five seasons, he ranks in the bottom 10% of MLB hitters in terms of making contact in the launch angle sweet spot of 8-32 degrees, a range that produced roughly a .600 batting average in that span.

If Puig’s next team can help tweak his swing or approach, Puig may be able to turn some ground balls, high flies and popups into line drives, thereby raising his batted ball results back toward where they were early in his career.

None of this is easy, but as a bat-first corner outfielder, Puig needs that bat to play bigger than it has of late. An adjustment or two at the plate could accomplish that goal and make Puig’s next foray into free agency a splashier one.