Yasiel’s Yield: Looking at Yasiel Puig’s Early-Season Struggles

I really like Yasiel Puig. I always have. Let’s get that clear (I have a bobblehead on my desk), because picking apart a player’s rough year always seems a bit mean. He’s fun to watch, and he has all the potential in the world. That being said, he underachieved a bit last year (but he was hurt), and more so this year. Most of the problem is at the plate, as opposed to defense as it has been since he entered the league. He’s striking out, not generating enough power, and there are times where he looks lost at the plate. That’s the disease. Let’s look at the symptoms.

To Puig’s credit, his defense has been solid so far. He’s rocking a defensive WAR so far of 1.1, a stat in the negatives every season so far in his career (-1.2, -5.7, -0.7). So that’s not the problem. His saving grace has always been his offensive prowess, even during dryer stretches. For the first time in his major league career, his offensive WAR is in the negatives, at -2.7. The surface stats show a problem, since he’s batting an underwhelming .234 so far in 2016 (.255 last year). His strikeout rate is high, but it always has been. He’s struck out in roughly 20% of at-bats ever full season he’s played, peaking at 22.5% in 2015 with a low at 19.4% in 2014. He’s stealing bases well and generating some RBIs. This season’s problems can be boiled down to two things that a good eye test probably betrays: hitting for power and plate discipline. Let’s break them down by the numbers.

 

Power Hitting

It’s always been clear that Puig has power. Even when he struck out a lot, he could destroy balls when he got a hold of them. It’s just not happening so far this year. He’s posting a career-low in slugging percentage at .380 (.436 last year). You might think that’s just his low average, right? Unfortunately, his ISO (isolated power, SLG-AVE) is a career low .146 this year (he’s hovered in the .180-.200 range before). He’s on track for around 12-15 home runs, which isn’t a huge deviation from his career average, but he’s not getting extra bases or solid hits. He’s hitting more singles than ever, and he’s on track for barely more doubles than he hit in 2015 in 282 plate appearances. He’s halfway to his single count from last year.

 

Let’s look closer. It’s generally agreed on that the best hits are line drives; they move quickly through the air, they’re hard to play, and they cut under the wind so they generate more home runs. Puig is hitting 15% line drives, down from 17.1% last year (to be fair, he was lower in 2014, at 14.8%). He’s not generating many ground balls, which can be good or bad depending on how far they get in the field. Judging from his low infield-hit percentage versus his infield fly ratio, is looks like a lot of his grounders poke through. He’s hitting a career high in fly balls at 40.2%, which has gone up every year since he entered the league. He’s always made up for that with home runs though, until now. He’s at a career low for home run to fly ball ratio, at 9.3%. The troubling thing is that his fly balls aren’t going as far this year. He’s hitting an alarming number of infield flies at 23.3%. For reference, his career high before this year was his rookie season at 10.3%. He has half of last season’s total fly balls already, 43 versus 84.

 

After a certain point, we can only speculate as to what the issue is. One thing stands out in the numbers, though: he’s not hitting fastballs. Every season Puig has been a major leaguer, fastballs have been his highest-value pitch by runs above average (range of 7.3 to 17.8). This year? -3.7. And you know why? Pitchers are throwing him high more. Look at pitcher’s fastball location versus Puig in 2014 versus 2016 (heatmaps per Fangraphs, as always). Pitchers are putting way more fastballs high in the zone, and he’s biting, generating playable flies. Worse is the fact that in past years, he’s actually hit those pitches better. His contact on high fastballs has dropped every year, and now they’re being thrown to him more. If he wants to get back good contact, he’s either going to have to elevate his swing better to meet those throws or lay off them and take the 50/50 call.

 

Plate Discipline

Puig’s been eager at the plate his entire career; it’s actually something I like about him. He looks for the hits. He’s getting walked at a career-low rate, 4.1% (previous career low was 8.3%). He’s also swinging at a career-high of pitches outside the zone, 38.1%, while taking swings at roughly the same number inside the zone. He’s swinging at a career-high percentage of total pitches, 57%. Thing is, plenty of batters swing outside the zone, it can create valuable foul balls and extend at-bats. He’s making a career-low of contact outside the zone, 55.6% (62.8% last year). Baseball isn’t quite basketball, where a cold shooter can chuck his way out of a slump; you can’t swing your way out of a cold streak if your contact is down. Pitchers will adapt and throw stuff nobody can hit, betting you’ll go after it.

 

Look, this might have seemed harsh. That’s not the point. I’ll never not like Puig, and the same goes this year. It is interesting, however, to look at exactly where his slow start has come from this year so far. Maybe he just needs to swing less, maybe the answer is a minors stint like the Los Angeles Times suggested. I don’t have the fix. But the problem looks like it’s overswinging, plain and simple.

 

I’m rooting for you, Yasiel. You gotta start punishing those high heaters, though.

 

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