Every mistake the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig makes is magnified while his super-human plays are expected. Is Puig held to an unfair standard?
Puig took the American baseball world by absolute storm in June of 2013, and after injecting a brand of energy, fire, and excitement the league had maybe never before experienced, he has since been pretty much rejected on most fronts. It doesn’t matter how many ungodly throws he makes from the outer depths of right field to nail base runners or diving catches or towering home runs–Puig just can’t seem to win over MLB, the media, or fans.
Was Puig’s journey from the penthouse to the ground floor predictable? Maybe. We do place our sports heroes on very high pedestals and then love to tear them down. After spending only a year in the minors, Puig debuted and killed National League pitching in his first season, slashing .319/.391/.534 with 19 home runs, 21 doubles, 2 triples, 42 RBIs, and 11 steals in only 382 ABs. In his very first game, he showcased “that arm” by rifling a throw from deep right field to double up a runner on first and end the game. He managed to top that the next day by hitting two home runs, a double, and driving in 5 runs. Baseball couldn’t help but take notice; he played with reckless abandon that cost the Dodgers some runs, but he brought them many more, not to mention increased marketing revenue.
In the early months of his career, Puig’s boneheaded plays and over-the-top bravado were played in the media as mostly comical, as he could do no wrong because of the life he was breathing into the game. But as the season wore on, his teammates began to openly grumble about the preferential treatment he was receiving from the press, and even worse, management. Naturally, Puig’s head ballooned, and so did his unfavorable reputation with opponents. Off-the-field incidents soon followed, though that isn’t too surprising from a newly minted, very young superstar athlete.
By the beginning of the 2014 season, the sheen was rapidly wearing off, but was the turnaround fair? Puig’s follow-up was anything but a sophomore slump: .296 average with 16 home runs, 37 doubles, 9 triples (many of those two-and-three-baggers born from sheer hustle), 69 RBIs, and 15 outfield assists. If you cut-and-pasted these same numbers on any other second-year player he would be celebrated for sure. But for Puig, it wasn’t enough for his teammates, former manager Don Mattingly, or fans. Most people say it was Puig’s lack of humility that drove him to this place–display too much ego and expectations rise accordingly. This may be true, but the language and cultural barrier Puig faced in the Dodger clubhouse could have also played a role, though this was to blame on both sides.
Puig went into the winter of 2014 without the support and adulation he had known from day one, which made his self-destructive behavior understandable, especially considering he was still only 24 years old. He did some stupid things off the field in his car and ate too many home-cooked meals by his mama, which led to his arrival to spring training out of shape. His 2015 season of disaster (mostly remembered for long stints on the DL with hamstring strains and horribly-off stats) was a direct result of these preceding factors. And if he was already falling off the pedestal with his All-Star second season numbers, it’s easy to understand the subsequent crash to the ground in 2015.
Unfortunately for Puig, the early part of 2016 is feeling a lot like deja vu, at least with fans and the media. New manager Dave Roberts famously gave Puig a mulligan the day he was hired. He arrived to spring training looking trim and ready to climb back into everybody’s good graces. #puigontime says it all: he is doing all the right things in the clubhouse, including making the effort to speak more English, hang out with his teammates, and be a cheerleader for the team. He and Clayton Kershaw buried the hatchet on a goodwill baseball trip to Cuba. Even though his offensive numbers are not where they need to be, he is not taking those early struggles to the field; in fact, it has been quite the opposite–he is diving for every ball and has compiled four outfield assists already. He is not grousing at the umpires over balls and strikes, and he is keeping the showboating to an absolute minimum. And yet…
A brain-freeze last week in a game against San Diego where Puig did not advance to third on a bunt by A.J. Ellis was treated in the press like it was a capital offense. Sure, it was a befuddling moment, but if say, second-year centerfielder Joc Pederson had committed the offense, it would have not received the same intense scrutiny. And this leads us to Tuesday night’s game. Puig definitely regressed by standing too long at the plate watching what he assumed was a home run bounce off the right field wall. Ouch. Clear double turns into a very long single. Roberts made the right decision to pull him from the game when he returned to the dugout (even after later hustling home from second base on an infield error, no less). Roberts needed to show the team he is in charge and Puig had a lesson to learn; his contrite response to the benching was professional and proof of his continued emotional growth. However, one does wonder if a Justin Turner or an Adrian Gonzalez makes that same transgression, does Roberts pull either of them?
The only thing for sure is that Puig will have to continue to work harder than most to prove he belongs in MLB. I, for one, am rooting for him.