Against the Grain: Puig in Center Field


Yasiel Puig should play some center field. Matt Kemp is going to have to accept a shift to left field or right field, if not this year, sometime in the near future of his career. Let me preface this by saying that I love Matt Kemp. I’ve always been a fan of Kemp’s, and I never called him out for being injured and absent these past two seasons. There’s nothing that I want more than for the Dodgers to win the World Series with help from their more tenured players like Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Clayton Kershaw, and Kenley Jansen. Winning it all without Matt would  be much different than I had envisioned a championship season to look like.

Whether it’s his surgically repaired ankle, or the fact he hasn’t played in two years, being a bit older (although Kemp is still young and not even

Is Matt Kemp’s time as starting center fielder coming to a close with the rising talents of Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson? Photo: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

thirty yet), or it’s just lack of focus, Matt Kemp isn’t the same center fielder we saw before the slew of injuries and before he slammed into that fateful wall in Colorado. Kemp was never an elite center fielder per say, but he was always better than what we have seen this season. Perhaps it is that Matt Kemp’s struggles and mistakes out in center field this season are amplified by Yasiel Puig’s incredible athleticism next to him in right field.

While Yasiel Puig was a scare last year in the outfield, this season he seems to be listening to his teammates more while in the field. A collision between Puig and Ethier was a nightly fear for Dodger fans in 2013 with Puig crossing boundaries and taking matters into his own. Yet from the moment we saw that throw during his Major League debut, the arm that launched a thousand tweets, we could see something unique about the Wild Horse, something truly special.

They said he would regress. They said he was a detriment to his team with his untamed style of play. Since debuting with the Dodgers on June 3rd of last year, the infamous Cuban defector would become a household name in Los Angeles and beyond. The City of Angels had finally found their little devil. Route 66 became the roadway to Dodger Stadium as fans embraced the go-all-out play of Puig.

Rising to superstar status had its bumps for Puig. Two arrests for driving too fast later, Puig now aims to keep his speeding contained to the beautiful baseball diamond at Chavez Ravine. Puig started third for the Dodgers on Friday night while collecting three hits and two walks. Puig’s polished his hitting strategy, and his new patience at the plate has him in the top spot for walks (23) on his team. Puig is now second in the league behind Troy Tulowitzki in batting average (.343). Puig is the Dodgers best hitter right now and he is most certainly our best outfielder.

Kemp has been benched for the second day in a row during the Philadelphia series after having a very bad night in the outfield in the series finale in New York. Not only did Matt make a costly error in center field, but he also misplayed other balls and generally looked lost out there. It didn’t help that Matt also went 0-for-4 on the night with two strikeouts. In fact is leading the Dodgers in strikeouts with 43. Puig has struck out 38 times on the season.

I don’t usually do this, but the statistics add a discussion point on Kemp’s futility in center field this season. Kemp’s 0.1 WAR and his Def of -7.1 reflects his inadequacies this season despite showing some life out of his bat. In comparison, Puig’s 2014 WAR sits at 2.8 while his Def is -0.8. I don’t personally look to into numbers like this, and I usually go to visual evidence like this:

And this:

Here is his arm on display even though he drops the ball plus another highlight catch:

Puig’s talents are all encompassing, but his range, speed, arm strength, and unbridled determination make Puig one of the most exciting Dodger outfielders we have seen in a long time. Sure, he can air mail a throw from time to time and he can miss the cut-off man, but you take the good with the bad. The good is supremely good with Puig, and the bad… I can live with. The most promising aspect to Puig is that he is able to learn and improve, a baseball skill we have seen he does indeed possess this season as reflected in his adaptations at the plate and in the field. Puig could be an amazing center fielder.

Many argue that the Dodgers tried Puig in center field last year and he was horrible, and he should never be tested in center again. That’s better left to a winter project. I had originally called for the Dodgers to give Puig time in center this past Spring Training, Sure, playing Puig in center field more would not be a seamless nor perfect transition. Aside from the Matt Kemp aftermath which would likely see endless sulking and ego checks upon a shifting in the outfield, Puig’s defense in center will not come without work and a definite learning curve. Yet I fail to agree that 10 Major League games in center would ultimately reflect Puig’s true capabilities in center.

Don Mattingly sat Matt Kemp out for the second straight game, playing Andre Ethier in center field on Friday and Saturday. Ethier still has value to this team with his outfield versatility and his above average arm. Even though, like Kemp, Ethier is no longer the player he once was, he still plays a clean center field as well as left and right field on any given day. Ethier’s admirable play in center field in 2013 was an integral part of the Dodgers’ success with Matt Kemp’s disabilities. Don and Andre may have had their differences, but the skipper knows he can go to Andre in order to give him a reliable glove in center field. He may not be making the flying catches like Puig, but I have watched Andre Ethier make some sparkling plays all over the outfield during his career with the Dodgers.

Andre Ethier isn’t the full-time solution at center field as much as Kemp is no longer the top outfielder for the Dodgers as well. The Dodgers will need to eventually iron out this five-outfielder situation, but the longer I watch the less comfortable I am with Kemp in center field for the long haul.

Puig could play some games in center field with Kemp or Ethier in right field or left field and Carl Crawford in left field at times. I could very well see an outfield of: Carl Crawford in left, Puig in center, and Kemp in right field. We still want a strong arm in right field, so Carl Crawford is relegated to left. Yet we have seen Crawford flash his leather of late, and he made an amazing diving catch to save the game for the Dodgers on Friday. Crawford still does have some speed and agility when healthy, but his arm is the weak point. Carl Crawford and Scott Van Slyke should continue to start in left field.

Matt Kemp already has 4 errors in center field over 39 games this season so far. His career high in errors came in his rookie year 2006 with 5 in 46 games and in 2010 and 2011 he collected just 5 miscues over 158 and 159 games in each of those two seasons. Puig has committed 5 errors in his almost first full year in the Majors, and he has no errors in 2014. He made 1 error at center field last year in 10 games played from the position. Errors may not be the best way to evaluate defense, but the numbers can definitely add something to the discussion.

The Dodgers, the fans, even Matt Kemp himself are waiting for the real Matt Kemp to return to form. I’m happy to have Matt Kemp back in games, but the successful future of this team may mean Kemp’s eventual shift in the outfield.

Don Mattingly’s remarks about Matt Kemp after the loss to the Mets in the series finale was very telling:

"“We continue to look at it and give Matt the opportunity to keep working and get better,” Mattingly said on Thursday. “He doesn’t look the same. The burst, the outrun-the-ball thing. We’ve talked to Matt and don’t hear anything medically that he’s not feeling good. We just want to see the same burst. We don’t know if it’s a matter of him being out a few years. He’s trying, been working, and we’ll continue to go from there.”"

He doesn’t look the same.

Yasiel Puig should be primed for the center field position should Kemp need to be shifted in the outfield or if he is injured- a thought always in the back of our minds. Sometimes Mattingly likes to look at different options and to do things differently, and playing Puig in center could really be the polarizing choice, but it could also be the ultimate choice of the future.

Unless Joc Pederson finds a spot on this team. Joc hit another homerun and a two-run triple on Friday night with the Isotopes. He’s ready to make a splash in the Majors, and his defense in center field has been good as well. Aside from a couple of injuries or trades, Joc is essentially blocked right now. The decision in regards to the Dodger outfield will eventually have to be made. Can Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier’s popularity and success with the Dodgers over the years take a back seat to the youth and talent which is up and coming? Can Kemp ever return to form and should we continue to wait?

Puig’s electricity leads this team from the dugout, from social media, and from the plate. I argue that Puig could benefit this Dodger team from center field as well. He’s rough around the edges, but with his natural gifts he can work though the misunderstandings and the moments of wild abandon. Don’t you want to see Puig throw out a runner at home from center field? When was the last time we saw Kemp do that?

The future is now with Puig and Joc knocking on the door. The Dodgers cannot continue to shuffle the outfield on every given night, and when they do want to shuffle they should align the cards so that Puig gets some time in center field. Puig can learn anything. He learned to let up on the slider away. He can learn to anchor the outfield for the Dodgers. All of the outfielders have been productive in the lineup for the Dodgers recently, but the defense needs to be shored up as well.

Puig in center? It could happen.