For Yasiel Puig 2017 was a nice bounce-back year after 2 less than stellar campaigns. After struggling to fWAR’s of 1.5 and 1.0 in 2015 and 2016, he put up a rather solid 2.9 fWAR. Though has batting average didn’t budge up from 2016, both his on-base percentage and slugging percentages rose to heights not seen since 2014. Better yet he posted career bests in games played, home runs, walk rates, and strikeout rates. All of which are good signs moving forward into 2018.
ICYMI: Yasiel Puig's 2017 was so impressive that even the Giants' broadcaster wants him! https://t.co/WvoTjhcpuG
— Dodgers Nation (@DodgersNation) December 4, 2017
On top of that he also played the best defense of his career so far. Per Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved, Puig put up his best numbers. And additonally Baseball Refernce’s dWAR (defensive WAR) gave him his best rating yet as well: 1.3 dWAR; whereas his previous high was 0.6 dWAR in 2013 mostly due to his arm and outfield assists. We even covered in December how he was robbed of a Gold Glove in right-field.
Going forward into 2018 what indicates that he is going to have an explosive year? Why would we make the claim that quite possibly he will have his best year yet? Let’s dig into the numbers, and find out why, and how, Yasiel Puig can have his best season in 2018.
The Defense: Keep on Saving Runs
Every year Puig seems to take more steps forward on his defense. And last year was the culmination of his hard work to improve his skills in the field. He more than doubled his DRS total in 2017 to 18. His range factors and arm ratings were top notch. And to boot, he made the fewest errors of his career at only 1 error. Sometimes it is easy to forget he is still going to only be 27 years old this year. Nothing indicates he will regress defensively. Indeed defense can sometimes come and go, but with the upward trend he has been showing since 2014, there is no reason why he would take a step backwards in 2018.
We can expect more highlight reel plays like this in 2018:
The Hitting: Embracing the Fly-Ball
We are living in the fly-ball era revolution. Last season home runs were hit at historic rates. And players also struck-out at historic rates. Part of this was many hitters embracing the fly-ball. Some of it is to try to take advantage of the higher home run rates. And others to try and beat defenses embracing shifts more. Not only this but many players are also trying to pull the baseball more. You want a clear example of how this breeds success? Look no further than the Dodgers’ own: Justin Turner.
"If I fly out four times, I had a great night, because I didn't hit a ground ball." Justin Turner pic.twitter.com/agD88LTRpW
— John Peabody (@PeabodyBaseball) December 30, 2017
In 2014 and 2015 Justin Turner was certainly solid. He put up respective fWAR’s of 3.2 and 4.0 – vastly above prior career norms. But in 2016 and 2017 he was even better. In both seasons he put up a 5.5 fWAR. What changed for him from his career in New York, to the first 2 seasons in Los Angeles, to the last 2 in LA? Quite simply, Turner embraced the fly-ball. His fly-ball rate went from 31.7% in 2013 in NY, to 36.2% in 2015, all the way to 47.8% last year. With that change, and pulling the ball more, he has been able to revamp his offensive game.
The time has come for Yasiel Puig to fully embrace the fly-ball revolution. As it stands Puig has averaged a 34.5% fly-ball rate in his career. With that rate sitting at 35.6% last year. Since Puig had career bests in walk and strikeout rates last season, a career high contact rate of 76.9%, and a career worst .274 batting average on balls in play, one could honestly tell him he can afford to add loft to his swing. Puig is certainly strong enough that this formula would work well.
Luck of the Cubans: Returning Yasiel Puig to Norms
Since his BABIP was nearly 50 points below his career average last year, you can expect a natural return to norms. Normally this indicates a possible 20 to 30 point bump in his batting average. If he maintains his walk rate and his ISO (isolated slugging percentage, which is slugging percentage minus batting average) then both his OBP and slugging percentage will increase too. Even a a bump to a .275 batting average could boost his triple slash to something like .275/.355/.495. Having that kind of line would indeed be a boon.
Additionally, despite posting high ground-ball rates, Puig also posted an below-league average in-field fly ball rate. If Puig swings that ground-ball rate maybe another 6-8% lower, he will likely see a spike across the board in his stats. In looking at Justin Turner’s spray chart one thing is clear, Turner hits a lot of fly-balls, and has had success doing so. Conversely, Yasiel Puig’s spray chart tells a different tale. He has hit far more ground-balls to the left side, and almost all of them resulted in outs.
Highest @statcast expected BA based on launch angle/exit velo
Justin Turner .326
Miguel Cabrera .312
Daniel Murphy .310
Carlos Correa .308
— Mark Simon (@MarkASimonSays) July 19, 2017
By looking at both charts it is clear Turner had vastly more fly-balls that went for both outs and hits. The general consensus change in hitting philosophy for many players was that if you hit more fly-balls, and try to hit them harder, you’ll have a higher probability for hard hit extra base hits. And if you are getting away from the shifts, and defensive alignments of the infield, that can only help. With how many pulled ground-balls Puig hit, changing to a more fly-ball heavy approach may help turn around his luck and his BABIP.
Where Does This All Lead for Puig?
But the point of pointing this out is maybe, just maybe, with Puig’s strength if he embraces a more fly-ball, pull-approach, and allowing himself to sacrifice that for a few more strikeouts, then he could very well have a truly explosive 2018 season. Since he had a career best strikeout rate, having it go up 1 or 2 percentage points will not hurt him at all. Shoot, he may be able to maintain his current rates and still embrace that more fly-ball heavy approach. Will it happen? That remains to be seen. But ultimately, even if Puig does in 2018 what he did in 2017, merely the corrections driven by his BABIP will net him a better season. That you can take to the bank.