Shockingly (or perhaps not), Yasiel Puig isn’t the N.L. ROY

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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.

6 comments

  1. With a healthy CC, Kemp, and Dre the decision is simple send his butt back to double AA. Tom Verducci was right on the money after game 6 when he said Puig can be fun in July and August but a little league outfielder will eventually come back to haunt you in October.

  2. On the other hand, despite (and including) all of Puig’s flaws, he put up 5.0 WAR in 2/3 of a season. In case you’re wondering, the trio of Kemp/Ethier/Crawford have a combined total of 2 seasons of 5.0 WAR or better (out of 28 combined seasons). Personally, I think Mattingly handled Puig very well, and I think his point — which is a good one — is that the only way to remove all the mistakes immediately is to take away the aggressiveness that leads to the mistakes, which is the same exact aggressiveness that leads to spectacular plays and great outcomes on the bases. He makes some boneheaded plays, and yet the great plays more than balance that out, to the tune of 5 extra wins in 2/3 of a season. As he matures, the mistakes will become less and less frequent, and if he hasn’t had the aggressiveness beaten out of him, we’ll be left with a polished, great player. He will not get that in Double-A.

    And the stuff about “eventually come back to haunt you in October” is just garbage. Puig’s flaws didn’t hurt the team in October — he happened to have a bad slump at a bad time (against great pitching). He had two notable Puig-ish plays in the playoffs. One (the Holliday flyball) didn’t hurt the team at all — after he lost the ball in the sun, it was a double no matter how hard he hustled after it. Should he have hustled? Of course. But it’s one play, and it didn’t cost them anything. The other play (his double-celebration triple) … well, the end result was a standup RBI triple, so it’s hard to complain too much about that.

    Plaschke or someone like him said back in August that Puig’s play would cost them a few games in October. He was wrong, and Verducci was wrong when he said it in October. Puig has some growing up to do, but if we ignore the HUGE contribution he made to the team just because he’s not perfect, we’re being silly.

  3. I agree with you on all points, Tony, but would like to add that the mental flaws MUST be ironed out in Glendale this spring because, if they’re not, there will be serious repercussions as the season progresses. Your reference to Milton Bradley was spot on.

  4. I seem to recall similar complaints about Kemp when he first came up. Poor baserunning, not backing up 2nd base, etc. He was also brought up before being fully polished in the minors. His issues even spilled over into the dugout with at least one coach. It took Kemp more than a full season or so in the majors before he started to really get it in gear, but I don’t hear anyone really bring up these types of issues anymore with Kemp. Reports on Puig’s interactions with the coaches always seem to be positive and you see that he tries to implement their feedback in games, even if he does revert back to old habit at times. So is there really reason to worry about Puig any more than was worried about with Kemp early on?

    Personally, I think it’s more an issue of time than anything. The guy hadn’t been playing baseball for quite a while, spent very little time in the minors and was thrown into the deep end of the majors and forced to learn how to swim through a good deal of a season. As far as I can tell, it looks like Kemp spent 389 games in the minors with about 1600+ PAs and he was considered raw, Trout had 286 games and around 1300 PAs. Puig? 63 games with 262 PAs. That’s a huge difference, especially when you consider he was out of baseball, busy escaping to the U.S. prior to those games. I think it’s fair to say that he should be cut some slack for his miscues in his first partial season.

    It’s pretty amazing Puig fared as well as he did and is more of a statement to his amazing abilities than it is to his lack of coachability, attitude, etc., in my opinion. He was raw in his first year, plain and simple. If he comes out of 2014 still as raw, then there may be some reason to question his makeup, but right now I’m just happy he’s a young Dodger player with huge upside.

  5. Great points, everybody, and thanks for taking the time to post these comments. This guy is always going to be a hot-button topic, and whenever I post anything about him here, it always elicits fantastic reader comments. No matter what he does, fundamentally sound or otherwise, you have to give him credit for being a fascinating subject. As we used to say in the newspaper biz, he’s good copy.

  6. Maybe the Dodgers should bring in Richie Incognito to ‘tutor’ him.