Yasiel Puig #66 of the Los Angeles Dodgers hits a single in the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Dodger Stadium on June 1, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
Call this part of the blockbuster movie that is Yasil Puig, “The Encore.”
On June 3, 2013, Puig stepped onto the Dodger Stadium grass for his first game and during the next month the Cuban phenomenon put on an athletic display that drew comparisons to a young Vincent Jackson.
He won the National League Player of the Month award for June, and it wasn’t even close. The stats: .436/.467/.713, seven homers, 16 RBIs, 72 total bases. The stamp: a game-ending throw from the warning track in right field and a jaw-dropping opposite field grand slam. If he had run for mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would’ve been recalled.
Fast forward to June 3, 2014, exactly one year later. Gone are the comparisons of Jackson, but even Bo knows that what the kid just pulled off is special.
On the anniversary of his first full season in the big leagues the 23-year-old did it again today. He won the National League Player of the Month award for May, and it wasn’t even close.
The stats: .398/.492/.731 eight homers, 25 RBIs, 79 total bases. The stamp: reaching base safely in every game and a diving catch in New York that made Matt Kemp say “oh, s---.”
Forget mayor, if he wanted to buy the Clippers tomorrow, he probably wouldn’t have to give away any of his $42 million. I’d bet that the legion of “Puigmania” would cut the check.
The Cuban who was just off the boat a little more than a year ago, who played ball for just dollars a day in his homeland and, according to a Los Angeles magazine article, was close to having his Paul Bunyan paws chopped off by a disgruntled human trafficker, is becoming a certified player.
In his first 156 games Puig joined four other players: Chuck Klein (1928-29), Hal Trosky (1933-34), Albert Pujols (2001-02) and Ryan Braun (2007-08) as the only players in Major League history with at least 190 hits and at least 30 home runs in their first full year; Puig has 191 hits and 30 homers.
He no longer approaches at bats like he went to the Vladimir Guerrero school of hitting: if he throws it, I will swing.
His manager Don Mattingly says Puig has done what great players do - adjust to the league.
“The biggest change, I think, we’ve seen so far is the patience at the plate. I think that’s been a huge difference,” he says. “The first test for him was (pitchers) weren’t going to throw him a strike. Last year he continued to swing. This year he’s shown that he’s not going to chase...getting himself better pitches to hit.”
The change has paid off. The man Vin Scully calls “The Wild Horse” leads all Major League outfielders in batting average (.340), he’s second in on-base percentage (.442) and second in OPS (1.036).
Puig’s still a 23-year-old adjusting to a new country where he barely speaks the language and is expected to be a key cog on a World Series title contender. So, his mistakes should be viewed from that lens.
He’s still the loudest mouth with the biggest smile in the locker room. Players on other teams still think he’s arrogant and out of control. He still throws a tantrum on the field when he swings through a fastball meant for the seats.
But his teammates say his emotions come from love of the game and they love him for it. Mattingly says Puig is also starting to understand the expectations placed upon a player of his ability.
“His game has matured from the standpoint of still having all the energy but less out of control. He’s throwing the ball to the right base, most of the time. We see him still being aggressive on the bases but just not running into outs. There’s still going to be a step backward every now and then, but for the most part there’s been a maturity to his game...that’s been fun to watch.”
Carl Crawford sees a lot of himself in Puig.
“Just the energy he brings every day. When I was that age I was the same way, out there running and playing hard. It definitely reminds you of yourself,” he says.
As this human highlight film known as Yasiel Puig rolls on, mark your calendars, because it’s getting more compelling by the day and the scene to play out on June 3, 2015 could be epic.