Yasiel Puig ignited millions of imaginations when he first broke into the majors in 2013. With all his speed, power and energy, surely there would come a season when he would do it all.

Three years and many twists and turns later, the early evidence suggests 2016 may finally be that season.

Early though it is, Puig is authoring the kind of performance that can’t be ignored. In his first 14 games, the Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder has put together a .347/.429/.510 slash line and has landed on highlight reels thanks to his baserunning and defense.

Say, that sounds an awful lot like a player who would loom large in the WAR room! And sure enough, Puig entered Tuesday with 0.9 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. Among others, that tied him with reigning National League MVP Bryce Harper.

Again, it’s really early. Did I mention that it’s really early? Because it’s really early. Really. Early.

What makes Puig’s early performance so hard to ignore, though, is not just his numbers. There’s also the sense that he’s showing even 25-year-olds like himself can be “back.”

Though it’s easiest to focus on a 2013 season that earned Puig a second-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, he actually kept on superstar-ing through the first two months of 2014. Through his first 155 major league games, the Cuba native owned a .328 average, a .969 OPS, 30 home runs and 16 stolen bases.

Though Puig often lived up to his Wild Horse nickname in that span, it didn’t matter. The 6’2″, 240-pound dynamo was arguably the best all-around right fielder in the sport despite his flaws. Had he kept doing what he was doing, we would’t still be waiting for him to have his magnum opus season.

Instead, Murphy’s Law took over.

In 176 games between June of 2014 and the end of 2015, Puig hit just .264 with a .759 OPS, 16 homers and nine steals. On the field, he was undone by his poor plate discipline, his lack of proper baseball instincts and injuries that limited him to only 79 games in 2015. Off the field, Puig was a nuisance in the clubhouse who couldn’t stay out of trouble outside the clubhouse.

Still, Puig’s youth was one bright side coming into 2016. Even better, he seemed sincere about changing his ways in a February interview with Jorge Morejon of ESPN Deportes.

Judging from new Dodgers manager Dave Roberts’ recent remark to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, that effort is going well:

Meanwhile, Puig also looks like a player who’s similar to his old self, but with fun, exciting new wrinkles.

The area where Puig most resembles his old self is in his plate discipline. Jay Jaffe of SI.com noted that it initially looked good, but it’s since gotten worse. Underneath Puig’s nine strikeouts and five walks are numbers that show he’s hacking, chasing and whiffing even more than usual:

Though Puig can indeed show flashes of excellent discipline, it’s clear by now that he’s a hacker by nature. Rather than hope for him to correct that, the hope should be that he’ll make the most of it.

The best way for Puig to do that is by being a good bad-ball hitter, and therein lies the good news. Per Baseball Savant, he entered Tuesday hitting pitches outside the strike zone better than ever:

  • 2013: .247 AVG, .357 SLUG
  • 2014: .217 AVG, .296 SLUG
  • 2015: .168 AVG, .244 SLUG
  • 2016: .375 AVG, .625 SLUG

Puig has earned these numbers. He entered Tuesday hitting pitches outside the zone at an average of 89.9 miles per hour, significantly better than the MLB average of roughly 84 miles per hour.

A demonstration? Sure, why not. Here’s Puig crushing a high-and-away breaking ball for a home run:

In a related story, getting the ball airborne is another thing Puig is doing well.

He tended to be more of a ground-ball hitter in his first three seasons, posting an overall ground-ball percentage of 49.5. At the start of play Tuesday, though, his ground-ball percentage was just 38.9. He’s mostly been hitting line drives and fly balls. 

This hasn’t yet equated to a ton of power, as Puig’s .163 ISO puts him below where he was last season. But that should change. Putting as many balls in the air as possible is the best way to hit for power. And with an overall average exit velocity of 92.3 miles per hour and a soft-hit rate of just 16.7, it’s not like Puig has been consistently jammed when he’s put the ball in play.

From a big-picture perspective, Puig is still far from Miguel Cabrera. But between his newfound bad-ball-hitting prowess and his elevated power potential, he could be a Vladimir Guerrero clone. That’s a comparison people (including me) were making with 2013 Puig, but it fits 2016 Puig even better.

Oh, and don’t forget about the rest of Puig’s game.

Another thing he wanted to do in 2016 was become a better baserunner. For that, he sought advice from the right guy in spring training.

“One thing I look forward to in spring training is working with Yasiel Puig,” Dodgers legend Maury Wills told Shaikin. “He asked me to work with him. Whenever a player asks you, you know that you are more than halfway there. You got him.”

The early returns are good. A guy who once ran into 14 outs on the bases in a single season has only run into one so far in 2016. Puig also has two stolen bases to go with a handful of aggressive plays, so it’s not surprising to see him rating as one of the game’s top baserunners.

It’s also not surprising to see Puig rating as one of the game’s top right fielders. He’s generally been a good defender, and he may be ready for the next step. A lighter frame following offseason weight loss may give him more range. And if he executes any more perfect relays like the one that cut down Welington Castillo last week, his infamous problems with the cutoff man could be history.

Due to assorted small sample sizes, it behooves us to stop short of saying Puig is going to do what he’s doing now all season long. Plus, there is Puig’s own history as a human roller coaster to consider. He waived his right to an automatic benefit of the doubt a long time ago.

But at the least, Puig’s strong start is worthy of optimism. It’s coming from a once-great player who’s in the thick of his prime years, and he seems to have found an all-around approach that matches his insane natural talent. He’s always been able to do it all, and right now it’s easy to see him continuing to do it all.

With Puig, there’s only one thing to do regardless: Sit down, watch and wait to see what happens.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked and are accurate prior to games played Tuesday, April 19.

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