Before anyone cynically suggests Yasiel Puig didn’t win the National League’s Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year award because his brashness, swagger and perceived uncoachability poisoned the minds of the 30 writers from the 15 N.L. cities who were chosen to vote on this award, let me just say this: The ballots were due BEFORE the start of the playoffs, and while Puig’s comportment issues were well known in Los Angeles almost from the moment he arrived in the majors on June 3, they didn’t really become a national story until the playoffs, when they showed up on the big stage in a big way.
Rather, the reasons Puig lost out to Miami’s Jose Fernandez were all the right ones, and they had everything to do with baseball. Look, Fernandez deserved this thing, hands down. He had only four starts all year that weren’t “quality starts,” and he had only one start that was bad — and that was way back in April. And, he was in the majors all year, whereas Puig spent only two-thirds of the season in the majors, and really, he spent only half the season being the greatest player in the history of mankind. He hit just .214 — albeit with six home runs — in September, striking out once every 4.5 plate appearances.
That, as much as anything, is what decided this.
Now, I want to examine some of Puig’s, umm, issues.
At some point, the Dodgers are going to have to do something. From the outside looking in, it almost seems like management is afraid to deal with him harshly or to reign him in, afraid that if they offend him or hurt his feelings, he’ll stop giving maximum effort. Don Mattingly said many times during the season that there was a fine line between asking a player to display proper fundamentals and robbing that player of his enthusiasm, aggressiveness and love for the game — and Puig clearly loves the game.
Ultimately, though, the goal here is to win. And when you have a player who routinely overthrows the cutoff man and occasionally even overthrows the guy the cutoff man is supposed to be throwing to — you know, like, the catcher — that is a detriment to winning. And when other fielders who play in his vicinity have to be tentative when chasing fly balls or pop-ups whenever Puig is anywhere near out of fear he may not back off when he is called off, that is a detriment to winning. The reason the Dodgers are paying Puig $42 million over seven years is because they believe he is talented enough to help them win. You don’t protect that investment by tiptoeing around it. You protect that investment by doing everything you can to ensure that the player does what you are paying him to do.
In fairness to Puig, there is no denying he is a fun player to watch. He brings a refreshing enthusiasm to the field that too many players in today’s corporatized game simply lack. And when he makes one of those notorious throws over the heads of everybody, those throws are still awe-inspiring to anyone watching who doesn’t have a vested interest in Puig hitting the cutoff man. The guy has a cannon arm and a powerful bat, and he doesn’t appear to be intimidated by anything or anyone, and those are beautiful things.
Of all of Puig’s transgressions this year, the ultimate, in my opinion, came in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the N.L. Championship Series. The Dodgers had a comfortable lead, but not an unblowable lead against a team like St. Louis. And when Matt Holliday led off with a pop fly to shallow right and Puig dropped it, possibly losing it in the late-afternoon sun, Puig reacted by walking to the ball rather than running after it.
By the time that happened, alas, the ROY ballots had long since been turned in.
Already in that game, Puig had raised the ire of the umpires by standing at home plate for several seconds after being called out on strikes, an antic that led to a well-chronicled, on-field meeting (warning?) before Game 6 between Joe Torre, who oversees the umpires, and Dodgers president Stan Kasten. I got a buddy who suggested to me the day after Game 6 that might have been the reason Clayton Kershaw appeared to be getting squeezed in the early innings. I’m not buying that, not for a second. Umpires can be vindictive at times, especially this generation of umpires, but they aren’t so vindictive that they are going to consciously affect the outcome of such a huge game and alter the course of baseball history.
Still, the last thing in the world the Dodgers can afford is for Puig to walk around with a target on his back (see Milton Bradley), because that situation can turn toxic really quickly. Most umpires, most of the time, are very professional. But just as we in the media sometimes allow our personal feelings toward a player to subconsciously seep into our reportage, umpires are human, and humans have emotions, and human emotions sometimes manifest themselves in certain ways. And when you have a player like Puig who clearly loves attention, you have to be at least a little wary of him sometimes drawing the wrong kind of attention.
It’s like my old junior-high principal (God rest his soul) told us at orientation on the first day of the seventh grade: “It’s better for you if I don’t know your name, because if I know your name, it means you have spent way too much time in my office.” Obviously this is a different situation, and the umpires DO know the players’ names, all of them. But my point is, the best thing a player can do in the eyes of the umpires is to just blend into the crowd of players.
And if there is one thing we have learned about Puig, it’s that he doesn’t blend into crowds very well. Nor does he want to.