Thursday, June 20, 2013

Yasiel Puig in Historical Context

One comment before I turn to Yasiel Puig: in the history of interleague play (which began in 1997), the LA Dodgers have NEVER played a game in Yankee Stadium, and even when scheduled had to wait a day due to weather. One of the most iconic rivalries in baseball, World Series opponents eleven times and the Dodgers haven't been in Yankee Stadium since October 28th, 1981. Believe it or not, there are still SIX interleague matchups that haven't been played in a given park:
1. The Cubs haven't played at Oakland
2. The Braves haven't played at Kansas City
3. The Cardinals haven't played at the LA Angels
4. The Rays haven't played at the LA Dodgers
5. The Padres haven't played at Toronto
6. The Rangers haven't played at St. Louis (in the regular season--they were 1-3 at St. Louis in the 2011 World Series)
How on Earth has America, no, THE WORLD managed to exist without these compelling matchups?

15 games into his big league career, Yasiel Puig is beginning to set some historical marks. I set some parameters in order to sift through the data:
1. Using the Game Finder tool in Baseball-Reference's Play Index, I filtered for players with at least one plate appearance in 14 of his first 15 games. This left a sample of 2,648 players (some of whom were pitchers--forgot to filter them out) since 1916.
2. I arbitrarily chose my cutoff as 40 plate appearances in these 14-15 games--I was looking for players that were used as regulars and not so much as pinch hitters.
With these criteria in mind,  here are the top 10 15-game starts since 1916:

This table is sorted by OPS, and there's  quite a range sitting in there. Fred Lynn accomplished this as a late-season call-up that was a preview of his outstanding 1975 season. Willie McCovey is a Hall of Famer, Matt Kemp was All-World last year and banged up this year. Mark Reynolds, along with Adam Dunn are the last of a dying breed, the three-outcome hitter, and Taylor Teagarden is...well, Taylor Teagarden. The two people with the most home runs in this span are Kemp and a person just off this list, Dino Restelli in 1949. It goes to show, there are no guarantees.

But Puig is pretty special. He's already made some outstanding plays in the field, throwing out runners testing an arm they weren't familiar with, laying down bunts and certainly showing power. It's too early to know if this will be sustained or if pitchers will get some video on him and find the holes in his swing. Good luck with that--these charts from Texas Leaguers illustrate his plate discipline. This first one shows what pitches he swings at:
This will be the first difference he'll see if it isn't happening already--he's going to start seeing a LOT more pitches outside of the strike zone to see if he'll bite. I didn't bother to count, but that looks like around 20-25 pitches outside of the strike zone. Through Wednesday's games, he's walked once and struck out 11 times, including one in each of the last five games, but this chart doesn't  suggest that he's a free swinger that goes up to the plate hacking. It appears he knows what he's looking for and waiting to get it and does not seem to swing at much outside the zone. 

This next chart shows the pitches he takes:
All in all, a pretty selective eye, strikeouts notwithstanding. It's pretty clear where the pitches are going to start going, to the right third of the strike zone, obvious for a right-handed hitter. He certainly likes to swing when he's up there--he has swinging strikes in 19% of pitches, which would put him in the top 25% if he had enough plate appearances. As long as he's hitting .474 that won't be a problem. Of course, he won't always hit .474, and that will be what determines his success or failure.

This last chart shows his spray chart:
It's too early to make grand pronouncements, but he's hitting all over the field--three of his five home runs are to the opposite field and he sprays the ball around, giving the impression he works with what he's given and doesn't attempt to pull balls that would result in weak grounders. 

So, how about the WORST 15-game starts?:
There's a whole lot of "eh" there, and I'll guarantee you've barely heard of many of these players, for good reason. Aaron Hicks is still underwhelming as the Twins center fielder and has to be under pressure--he was put on the 15-day DL recently. Phil Nevin had a decent (depending on how far one is willing to stretch the definition of "decent") career, and as a ballplayer, Jackie Moore was...well, not a very good manager. I didn't want to do it, but I ran some numbers on Vic Harris, a middle infielder for some really bad 70s teams--the Rangers, Cubs, Cardinals, Giants and Brewers. He managed to stick around to accumulate over 1800 plate appearances and hit .217, and that was his ASSET as a player--he was a below-average fielder. He had a career WAR of -6.2, of which about 80% was due to poor fielding. And one last word on a player who deserves few--his teams' record in games in which he started was 153-232. Only in the 1970s, my friends.

Playing in a major market will provide no hiding place for Puig as the season progresses, but he will have the advantage that the Dodgers are going nowhere. Where will he end up--I'm already on record stating I wouldn't be surprised if he's the NL Rookie of the Year, and I'm sticking with that. I am nowhere near ready to predict a career trajectory (neither is Baseball-Reference), but he's a corner outfielder with power, and those things don't just go away. I DO predict that Andre Ethier will be wearing a new uniform sooner rather than later, and I wouldn't be surprised if Puig makes the All-Star team--if forced to take a stand, I'll still say no in deference to Clayton Kershaw, but I wouldn't be shocked. He's having one of the best career starts in baseball history, better than EVERY HALL OF FAMER--it's no guarantee, but it sure is amazing.

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