Yasiel Puig has turned things around offensively in 2018 after a frustrating slump to start the season. His improvement makes him more tradable, but the decision to move on from Puig is complicated. The Dodgers are playing well and winning, and Puig has been a key contributor during their successful run.
The Wild Horse hit another booming extra-base hit, a RBI double to the gap in the fourth inning against the Giants on Friday night at Dodger Stadium. It was Puig’s 13th double of the year and 21st extra-base hit in 189 at-bats. Most of his slugging has come after his brief stint on the 10-day disabled list. In his last 30 games, Puig’s hitting .311/.392/.667 with eight home runs, 18 RBI and 12 walks.
Puig’s polarizing personality, fueled by tongue wagging and batter’s box shimmies, has made him a constant discussion piece in trade talks over the years. Although always an elite right fielder, Puig has never been able to recreate his 160 wRC+ season in 2013 when he burst onto the scene and slashed .319/.391/.534 with a .925 OPS and 19 home runs in 104 games.
The following year he was selected to his first All-Star team, but his offense had already started dipping (.296 batting average and .863 OPS).
On and off-field turmoil has plagued Puig over the years. 2015 was a rough one that saw him battle injuries and inconsistency (.758 OPS). He played in only 79 games.
The following year his offensive improvement wasn’t enough, and he was usurped by Josh Reddick and sent down to Triple-A Oklahoma City for a month. He returned in September and hit .281 with four home runs.
In 2017 Puig moved on from the past and set career-highs in home runs (28), RBI (74), and stolen bases (15). Dodgers’ batting coach Turner Ward took him under his wing as a mentor, and the extra work in the batting cage and improved mechanics ultimately paid off.
Puig was an important part of the Dodgers’ success in their journey to the first World Series for the franchise since 1988. He hit .455 with five hits in the NLDS and .389 with seven hits in the NLCS. Puig hit three home runs in the three postseason series including two in the World Series. It looked like Puig had finally matured and become the player the Dodgers wanted.
The 2018 season didn’t begin as Puig and the Dodgers had hoped. A bruised left hip and foot slowed him down in April (41 wRC+), and his power was all but nonexistent resulting in an abysmal .057 IS0. He landed on the DL, missing 10 games.
When he returned in May, he started hitting the ball hard again (.321 ISO in 60 plate appearances), his highest isolated power mark since May 2014 (.333 ISO in 128 plate appearances). His power was creeping back, and was much improved over the previous month that saw him slug .250 in his first 96 plate appearances in March and April.
Puig continues to improve, although there’s going to be some bumps like his 0-for-3 day at the plate Sunday against the Giants. For the most part, Dodger hitters have been terrorizing opposing pitchers during this June boom. Joc Pederson, Matt Kemp, Max Muncy, and Puig have been hitting more consistently and with power. Puig’s hitting .333, slugging .646, and OPSing 1.042 in 48 at-bats this month.
Going into Sunday’s game, a patient Puig has walked more this year (9.2 BB%) than 2017 (11.2%). He’s also struck out a bit more (19.9%) over last year (17.5%). His 114 wRC+ is around the same as the prior season, but he has a slightly higher BAbip (.290). There’s still room for improvement, but Puig’s numbers post-DL demonstrate his value offensively and his potential should he stay healthy and consistent.
Puig’s value also lies in his top tier defense and elite arm in right field. He’s determined to win a Gold Glove Award, and there’s no arguing that Puig’s defense hasn’t been the problem over his career. It’s a valuable asset other teams certainly want. There may have been a cut-off man or two missed, but he already has six outfield assists this year, two more than he had all of last season and the most in the NL. His 45 career outfield assists is the second most among NL right fielders from 2013-2018 behind Jay Bruce. You don’t run on Puig.
Puig’s plate discipline may be improving and his power is surfacing again, but Puig is still Puig.
On June 10 he pulled a Bo Jackson, snapping his bat like a twig over his knee after striking out.
Puig still wears his emotions on his jersey sleeve, but that’s what makes him exciting to watch. The problem is that when he’s good, the bat flips and bat licks are fun. When he’s bad, his frustrations are just as visible and can interfere with his focus.
A productive Puig, even with all his antics and baggage, is still valuable on the trade market. After six seasons with the Dodgers, could Puig find himself a part of a July trade deadline blockbuster?
The Dodgers have already invested six years into Puig, have given him countless chances to find himself and adapt to a new country and new set of rules. Dave Roberts and Turner Ward have worked him with -- sometimes having to utilize tough love -- to get Puig to the point he is at today. A father of three sons, Puig seems to have found a balance between his wild ways and his effort as a student of the game. It looks to be clicking, but the Dodgers and Puig find themselves at a crossroads.
A month ago it seemed like the Dodgers weren’t competitive enough to make any big moves at the trade deadline, let alone go deep into the postseason again. Some even called for them to effectively retreat and sell-off what they can.
The plan is to position themselves with more financial flexibility in the off-season’s free agent market so they can go for future Dodger Bryce Harper and potentially make Clayton Kershaw a Dodger for life. Puig’s trade availability this summer would certainly make sense considering his past behavior, decline in performance over the years, poor start this year, and the logjam of Dodger outfielders.
Let’s consider the Dodgers in the moment. There’s no Harper right now. The Dodgers are winning. Puig has been a big part of the hot offensive onslaught. It’s a potent offense that has carried the team during a trying time when most of their pitching staff is on the disabled list, they’re playing without their All-Star shortstop Corey Seager, and Justin Turner missed the first 40 games of the season.
With a collective 3.76 ERA in June, the Dodger pitchers are leaning on an offense that leads the league with a .553 slugging percentage and .899 on-base percentage plus slugging. They’re on their way to a record month in home runs with 34 homers in 14 games.
Puig has hit three of his eight home runs this month, and all his home runs have come after his DL stint. He went 29 games before hitting his first home run of 2018, then hit eight in his next 28 games.
Do the Dodgers really want to part ways with Puig with a year and a half of control remaining on a very team friendly contract? Some say yes emphatically. L.A. has Andrew Toles, Alex Verdugo, DJ Peters and Yusniel Diaz in the minors, and they’ll have to find room in their outfield at some point. Puig’s value right now may be the highest it’s going to be, and there’s no denying they’re in need of pitching reinforcements.
Management will listen to all scenarios as they should, but they’ve invested a lot into Puig’s development on and off the field. The hard work and patience is finally paying off at the plate. It’s hard to imagine Puig in another uniform other than the Dodgers. He makes baseball fun, and we all need more of that in our lives. I can’t even try to imagine a scenario where a Dodger is thrown out by Puig in right field, his cannon arm a weapon for a rival team. The last five plus years has been a wild ride, but one that I would buy a ticket for again and again.