Yasiel Puig’s defense operated under controlled chaos. His arm was historically good, his attitude was historically polarizing and all of it led to this entertainingly frustrating combination of highlight plays and unread scouting reports.
Puig’s truth was far greater than the eye could see. He ripped up scouting reports, often played out of position and frowned upon the analytical advancements the game was trying to make. He preferred to be left behind to just play his brand of the game. But, that was Puig’s truth. He never felt like he needed a scouting report when the Dodgers felt he did and he wanted to make the diving plays, the running stops and the big throws. Puig wanted to be the highlight reel.
Until Andy McCullough’s article in the LA Times came out, unveiling the former Dodger right fielder’s shortcomings, he was those things. He had the big arm, he was Vin Scully’s Wild Horse and for a long time, he seemed irreplaceable. Puig’s defensive system became Los Angeles’s defensive system. It worked and it was fun to watch.
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But, when Puig was traded, his cannon-like arm and defensive prowess, one that’s shadow loomed large enough to cover up the truth behind the scenes, was no more. The irreplaceable brand of defensive baseball was now a gap in the outfield and replacing it was a question mark. How would the Dodgers fill that void? How could they replace that arm?
Immediately the answer became clear: Cody Bellinger’s first base duties would be no more, making more room for Max Muncy and David Freese to see playing time. Bellinger’s shift to the outfield never felt like a move to replace a near Gold Glove winner, it felt like an opportunity to put more bats into the lineup. The Dodgers were using defense to spread the offensive wealth.
Versatility will do that. Puig was only a right fielder, the traded him and his defense and replaced him with a guy that can play right fielder, center fielder and first base. When Bellinger was in the field, Muncy manned first. When Muncy was at second, Freese could play first and suddenly the door to offensive improvement was swung wide open simply with the use of fluid defensive positioning.
That part worked.
The 2019 Dodger offense has been league-leading and trendsetting. Bellinger’s campaign at the plate has put himself squarely into the spotlight of the MVP race. But, it’s half of his game. Bellinger at the plate has made his defense ignorable and, after having to fill the shoes of one of the city’s most loved defensive players, it shouldn’t be forgotten. Bellinger’s skills with the glove have run right past Puig’s.
Puig had a cannon and still does. On Monday, June 17, the Reds took on the Astros and Puig’s arm, based solely of reputation saved a crucial run. Alex Bregman was stopped at third, Puig’s cannon was the reason why.
That was the biggest Puig quality the Dodgers had to replace this past offseason.
In his career, Puig has saved 9.1 runs by his arm alone. Fangraphs rates a players ability to prevent runs with throws and player like Puig, whose reputation often supersedes the necessity to throw the ball, aren’t benefitted as highly as others are in that category. However, take Puig’s best single season by ARM and a year in which the outfielder’s arm strength was mere of rumor and not of fact. In 2014, the rookie outfielder accumulated 1,233 total innings of outfield playing time.
The majority of those were spent in centerfield but there was a good share of time spent in right. That year, in all of those innings, Puig accumulated 5.0 runs saved by the ARM metric. This season, in less than half the total defensive innings Puig had in his youthful-most season of MLB playing time, Bellinger’s arm has been good for 1.1 runs more than Puig had in 2014.
But, Bellinger’s defensive mastery in 2019 extends far beyond his arm. He’s reaching heights higher than most if not all of the rest of baseball all while putting together an offensive campaign light years ahead of where he was in 2018.
Bellinger leads the major leagues in DRS at 19, UZR at 9.8 and in the Puig category, ARM at 6.6.
For comparison, Major League baseball’s most notable and highlight-worthy outfield arm at the moment is Ramon Laureano. Laureano made a name for himself with a dead-center throw to first last season in Anaheim and has since not stopped throwing guys out from the outfield.
His arm rates well. This season he’s saved 5.1 runs with his arm according to Fangraphs and Bellinger is marginally ahead of him at 6.6.
The Dodgers Puig replacement has made Puig look like an afterthought and offense doesn’t even need to be in the picture. The Dodgers new right fielder is lined up for a strong bid at the MVP trophy but should be considered even higher for the gold and platinum glove awards.
Bellinger took over for the offensive flexibility. His defense had to replace the showman in right field and now, not only has he surpassed that, he’s put himself at the forefront of every defensive conversation. His offense this year shouldn’t overshadow that.