Yasiel Puig came out of nowhere, and even now, months after his major league debut, people still aren’t totally sure how to say his name. It is pronounced “pew” or “poo”? and is it “ig”,”egg” or “eeg”? I’ve heard it every which way all season long. Just yesterday I heard Mike Shannon – the Cardinals syllable-slurring-and-possibly-inebriated radio broadcaster on KMOX – just say “pig”. And his first name isn’t any picnic either. Are there three syllables or two? I honestly don’t know.
I pronounce it “Yaz-ee-el Pweeg” – long “e” in the middle of both names – and I think that’s right, but I’m no where near confident enough to make a wager on it.
Regardless of pronunciation, the dude can play. He is one of the quickest players I’ve seen. The 22-year-old Cuban somehow got a glove on that flare David Freese hit out in shallow right field that I thought was headed down into the corner for a triple. He was an inch from catching it. And how about his big hit from last night? Despite celebrating at the plate and not running hard out of the batters box, he somehow legged out a stand up triple with absolutely no play. He can change the game with his speed.
He can also hit. Say what you will about the Dodgers resurgence – whether it was all Puig’s doing or whether he was the product of being called up at the same time Hanley Ramirez came off the DL – and sure, he was 0-10 with 6 K’s in the NLCS going into last night’s game. Every player has ups and downs. But you don’t hit .319 and slug .534 in 104 games as a rookie unless you’ve got something special.
And that something special he has: passion. This dude loves to play this game. He’s a competitor, he is having fun, and he loves to play the game of baseball. Following last night’s game, he explained through a translator, “I was able to get back to really having fun. That’s all it really is for me, is having fun playing the game.”
You can tell his teammates love him too. Most, including manager Don Mattingly, will roll their eyes at his antics, but always with a giant smile. It’s just Puig being Puig.
All season long his passion has drawn the ridicule of fans, players and members of the media. He’s a polarizing personality, so this stuff is bound to happen. This morning’s headline is “Beltran irked by Puig’s antics.” And I can’t blame the guy. I watched Puig hit that triple, celebrating twice on a single trip around the bases, and probably muttered something derogatory under my breath too. I am a Cards fan, after all. The comments are surprising coming from Beltran, who after Game 1 was being made fun of by teammates for being unnaturally calm prior to his walkoff single in the Cardinals 3-2 win.
“It’s like you’ve got to put a mirror under his nose to check if he’s breathing, he’s so calm, cool and relaxed,” said Matt Carpenter after that game, “It’s like jazz music is playing in his head.” No wonder Beltran is annoyed by Puig; the two couldn’t be more different in their playing style.
If I were a Dodgers fan, I’d love the guy. Not saying I’d already be rocking his #66 jersey, but I would certainly be defending my guy from the criticism he’s drawn over the past season. He has the ability to make his teammates better. He’s the type of guy that, when his passion is channeled healthily, can energize and excite a team towards winning. His energy is infectious.
Besides, at the end of the day, he’s just having fun. And isn’t that the whole point of baseball anyway? In an age where massive contracts and player demands are so prevalent, it’s refreshing to hear someone talk about just having fun. Of course, he is a rookie, so it will be interesting to see how his perspective changes when he has an opportunity to make some serious dough. But for right now, it’s a nice thing to hear. (UPDATE: You gotta read this Sports Pickle article on Puig. Hilarious.)
Like I said, if I were a Dodgers fan, I’d love Yasiel Puig.
But I’m not a Dodgers fan.
Here’s my only real problem with Puig: his passion clouds his ability to play the game intelligently. So far this season, his antics have largely helped rather than hurt the Dodgers season and playoff run. He has been a lightning rod, a spark plug, whatever you want to call him, and that has turned this Dodgers team into a winner. But there have been moments where his ability to negatively impact the game have surfaced.
The first was June 11. In a game against the Diamondbacks, Puig was hit in the face with an Ian Kennedy fastball and somehow stayed in the game. An inning later, there was a bench clearing brawl when Kennedy hit pitcher Zack Greinke too. Puig can be seen right in the middle of it all. He’s one of the first ones to get into Kennedy’s face. He can be seen throwing punches, pushing players and truly seeking out opportunities to fight. Here’s a video of the brawl.
Eight players were suspended, but miraculously, Puig wasn’t one of them.
Then on two different occasions – June 27 and July 3 – his reckless playing style ran him into two different outfield walls. The first play took him full tilt into the right field wall on a home run. The second play (which he made) injured his hip and he would later have to leave the game.
Then on August 24, Don Mattingly said something interesting…
“He’s an energetic young player with such passion. Sometimes he goes out if control. But it’s never malicious. It’s never, ‘I’m missing the cutoff man because I want to.’ I don’t want to break this kid’s spirit. I like him playing the way he plays. But like with anybody else, I just want him to play intelligently.”
Then just a few days later, Mattingly benched him for doing exactly what he was afraid might happen: his passion was getting in the way of his ability to make small intelligent plays that impact the game negatively. In this case, he didn’t slide to break up a double play.
And then last night, in the wake of his headline-stealing performance, he did the exact same thing.
Puig hit a leadoff single to get the Dodgers going in the bottom of the 7th. Then Juan Uribe hit a slow grounder to the shortstop, and Puig nonchalantly jogged through the bag at second. Uribe was doubled up at first, and then AJ Ellis grounded out to end the inning. Not saying it would’ve made a difference, but when you play 162 games plus a potential dozen or so playoff games, little things like that are what lead to one or two small losses along the way.
Baseball is a game of inches, and players have to do whatever they can to make sure those inches are in their favor.
For example, last night, Jon Jay missed three fly balls to centerfield that could have been caught if he had played them properly. (Check my three tweets – 1, 2, and 3 – from last night for more on that fiasco. Grr.) None of them were errors, but they led to all three Dodger runs. If he makes those plays, who knows how the game finishes? It’s the little things that go unnoticed and aren’t found in the box score that often swing an entire game.
The minutia of baseball is crucial to success, and Yasiel Puig’s reckless abandon, while exciting, puts the minutia in jeopardy.
Sure, it will be overshadowed by his triple and the way he energized a team that had been near-comatose in St. Louis. As has been the case all year, his little errors in judgement aren’t leading to Dodger losses…yet. When they do, it will be interesting to see how the Dodger faithful react to the same passion and antics that are ticking off his competition and rival fan bases today.
If he shores up those fundamentals, he’s got another fan out of me. Until then, I’m with Beltran.
photo credit: Mark J. Terrill/AP