Is Yasiel Puig For Real? What the Numbers Say
Puig's Wild Ride
Yasiel Puig had an amazing rookie season in 2013. Yet there are already significant doubts about just what he might do this year and in the future.
There are three primary reasons why his performance is tantalizing when it comes to figuring out his future.
First, his initial month was so spectacular, it is hard to write off. Even superstars dream of a month like that. It wasn’t simply a one-dimensional breakthrough, but a full-bore, all-around assault on the National League.
Second, Puig’s numbers took a nosedive in his final three months. He was still very good, but it seems far more indicative than that amazing June.
Third, Puig entered into the fray midseason. There’s no knowing what an offseason and month of spring training will do for him. And don’t read too much into his numbers over the first few weeks – they might be revealing, in hindsight, but many players struggle in April and end up with huge seasons.
And, thus, there are three basic theories as to where Puig’s career will go from here.
The Gregg Jefferies Theory
At age 20, Gregg Jefferies hit .321 with power and speed in 29 games for the Mets. It appeared the Mets would have a great new infielder when he would get a chance to start in 1989.
Jefferies would indeed be a starting player for the next decade, leading the league in doubles in 1990. He averaged 11 homers, 61 RBI, 19 steals and a .292 average in that time. He was a solid, dependable player with two outstanding years, 1993 and 1994. Still, he was not considered anything special.
Puig hit .436 in June, then .278 over the final three months. Double his numbers over those 78 post-June games and you get 94 runs, 24 homers, 52 RBI, 14 steals and that .278 average. It’s very good. It’s not what Puigmania led people to expect.
If this theory holds true, Puig will be successful and still seen as a disappointment all because of his splashy debut.
It seems reasonable, doesn’t it? The numbers are realistically attainable and sustainable. Puig clearly has talent. He’s also seen as undisciplined and unlikely to change – not that we haven’t all been wrong about that with other young players.
The Joe Charboneau Theory
Joe Charboneau, like Puig, exploded onto the scene and became a national story. He hit 23 home runs and batted .289 as a rookie in 1980. Unlike Puig, Charboneau was solid throughout the season, with as much power in the second half as the first.
It didn’t last. He hit only .208 in the first half of his sophomore campaign, then got into just 10 games in the second half. Charboneau played 22 games in 1982.
Just like that, he was done. Charboneau tried to return over the next two years, never rising out of the minors.
He isn’t alone in the rapid decline from an outstanding rookie year. Another power hitter, Bob Hamelin, hit 24 homers with a .282 average in the strike-shortened 1994 season. He lasted four more years, only once reaching double-digit homers and failing to hit for average.
Mitchell Page had two outstanding seasons, in 1977 and 1978 for the Oakland A’s. His second year was great, but a big dropoff from the rookie season. He then had two mediocre years before becoming a reserve for four years.
What if the league really has caught up to Puig? What if he thinks he’s better than he is? If doubt starts to set in for him as pitchers gain confidence, it could be just as devastating as what happened to Page. And it doesn’t have to happen all at once this year. It can be next year or the one after. September was Puig’s worst month. How a player finishes their year often gives an indication as to where they will be the following season.
The Ichiro Suzuki Theory
Ichiro was five years older than Puig when he arrived in the majors. He also had a long career as a star in Japan.
Actually, Puig also played in high-pressure games overseas and might be older than advertised.
Ichiro led the league in hits, steals and average, batting .350. He has never again approached his 127 runs in 2001. The 34 doubles, 56 steals and 69 RBI remain career highs. It was quite possibly his best season.
So, was it misleading? Absolutely not. Ichiro really was that player. Over the next nine years, Ichiro averaged 102 runs, 222 hits, 36 steals and a .329 average. Unlike Jefferies, Ichiro became a bona fide star. No one ever thought he played below his initial promise.
Is it reasonable for Puig to hit 20 homers or steal 20 bases on average for the next few years? Yes. Could he be a .285, maybe even .300 hitter? Absolutely.
Puig’s amazing June could be an indication of his true talent, even if he was playing above his actual level.
Narrowing the Field
I think it’s best to separate the Puig-style rookie from two other types. Puig played over the last four months. That’s dramatically different than a player who had a September call-up or started the year as a regular.
First off, rookies who had a short stint the year before had a touch of the majors and have some idea of what they are dealing with. During that offseason and spring training, their knowledge and plans for adjustment are different than a youngster who comes up in May or June and suddenly plays every day. That player, like Puig, has to adjust on the fly if they can.
Players who begin the season as a presumed starter have less time to adjust than the September call-ups, but opponents are already watching them carefully.
The Futures of 50 High-Average Rookies
Under 500: 15
Under 50: 29
Under 50: 35
Under .250: 3
Great Emerging Rookies: What Happened to Them?
There are 60 players with between 300 and 500 plate appearances and a .300 average or higher in their first season.
Of these players, 10 (including Puig) are active. Of the other 50, not quite half played 10 or more years and less than a fifth got into 1,500 games. Two didn’t even get into a second season. Five reached 150 homers, led by Johnny Mize’s 359. Seven reached 150 steals, led by Cesar Cedeno’s 550.
In terms of batting average, many did keep up those high marks. Only three dropped below .250 for their career average and just 11 others fell below .275. Those who stayed over .300 included six players with limited time and seven with real time – John Kruk, Rusty Greer, Wade Boggs, Mize, Bob Meusel, Mickey Cochrane and Heinie Manush.
Of the nine non-Puig actives, several have clearly had strong careers. Ryan Braun, Yunel Escobar, Andre Ethier and Hunter Pence have blossomed. Austin Kearns saw his average drop significantly after that, but has had a solid career. Jemile Weeks, Jon Jay, Mike Aviles and Danny Valencia could put up big numbers.
Overall, the active group seems stronger, perhaps because many of the older players were, well, older as rookies.
So let’s look closer at Puig’s age contemporaries and those who also started out with power and speed.
Will Puig Live up to Expectations?
Do you think Yasiel Puig will live up to the high expectations of his rookie year?
Closing in on Puig
Puig is one of 34 players to be part of this group at an age under 25. Almost all of the career stars are in this group. In addition to Mize, Cedeno, Boggs, Meusel, Cochrane and Manush, there are Mike Hargrove, Gil McDougald, Dom DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Dan Driessen, Edgar Renteria and Jason Kendall.
In addition, few of these players faded quickly. Kevin Stocker and Gerald Young are among the rare members of the group who did not maintain strong numbers for a decade.
What about when you limit to under 25 and at least 10 homers and 10 steals? First of all, no player 25 or older did that double-double anyway. In fact, only three players join Puig in that exclusive club: McDougald, Braun and Pence.
Using those three to project Puig isn’t easy. Braun is far more of a power hitter than the other two, or Puig. McDougald and Pence put up similar numbers and were slightly older, at 23 and 24, than the 22-year-old Puig, but McDougald seems like an odd fit.
Is Hunter Pence the best example of what we can expect? Over the past six years he has played virtually every game. He has had between 76 and 93 runs, 22 to 27 homers, 72 to 104 RBI, 5 to 22 steals and a .253 to .314 average. Other than the steals and average, he’s been remarkably consistent and fairly in character with his rookie year.
Honestly, I’m not sure there is a clear Puig predictor. But I think Pence might not be a bad example. And Puig’s teammate Ethier, on the original list, is not far off, either, from Pence.
I think Puig will fall somewhere between the Jefferies and Ichiro models. He has all-around talent, but there’s no way he’s going to live up to that June. Pence, Ethier and most of the players who made big splashes midseason while under 25 went on to successful careers.