Polarizing. Powerful. Puig. The Cuban sensation is one of three finalists for the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award along with Miami’s Jose Fernandez and St. Louis’ Shelby Miller. Of the three contenders, Puig is the one who impacted his team the most and helped propel the Dodgers toward a NL West Crown and their first playoff appearance since 2009. It was no coincidence that after Puig’s June 3rd debut, the Dodgers made an epic turnaround to leap frog into first place after being mired in the cellar during the early going of the season.
Reminiscent of one of my favorite Dodgers, Raul Mondesi, who garnered the Rookie of the Year Award in 1994, Puig began his Major League career at the exact same age as Mondesi did: an unbridled 22. There’s even a song by Taylor Swift which captures the free-spirited spirit, albeit in pop music style, of the young age. Puig burst on to the scene with wild abandon, and during his first game stunned the baseball world with the infamous cannon throw from right field for his first assist. Vin Scully dubbed him the “Wild Horse,” and Puig’s all-out style not only made him a fan favorite but also irked rival teams and fans across the league.
Puig hit four homeruns in his first five games. He walked-off with a homerun, and he hit his first career grand slam mere days after his Dodger debut. He was the real deal, and the other teams began to take notice. Many said he could not sustain the level at which he was playing out of the gate, and Puig did end up coming down to reality by finishing his first season with a .319 batting average, 19 homeruns, 42 RBIs, 122 total hits, 11 stolen bases, 97 strikeouts, and 36 walks in 104 games. Interestingly, Raul Mondesi hit .306 with 16 homeruns, 56 RBIs, 11 stolen bases, and 133 hits in 112 games the season in which he won the Rookie of the Year Award.
Defensively Puig showed off his assets with powerful throws from the outfield which was good for 8 assists. He did make 5 errors, but with time he should settle down out there. The Wild Horse is untamed, and his failure to hit the cut-off man at times, his risky diving catch attempts, huge errant throws, and near collisions with Andre Ethier in center field all are areas of concern. Yet his exciting style of play shouldn’t be sacrificed unless it affects the safety of himself and the other players. Puig’s five-tool talents were really the most impressive amongst any rookie in either league for a position player.
Some rookies take time to break out, but Puig’s start was one of the most thrilling rookie career starts that I have ever seen. By the end of his first month with the Dodgers, Puig had won the NL Rookie of the Month award as well as the NL Player of the month. He became the first player ever to win both awards for his first month in the Majors. Puig’s amazing .436 batting average and .713 slugging percentage for his first month was incredible. His 44 hits for that month was good for a Los Angeles Dodgers rookie record, and he became the all-time second best behind none other than Joe DiMaggio who had 48 hits in his first month.
Watching Puig play harkens us back to five-tool players like Mondesi and Roberto Clemente, but Puig’s visage
reminds me of the one who started it all- Jackie Robinson. Like Robinson, Puig has a sort of rebel persona surrounding him. While Robinson had to overcome much greater negative response and opposition, Puig’s determination to escape Cuba and play Major League baseball is a story which cannot be overlooked. We can sometimes forget that Puig’s journey to the Dodgers has been a long process which included many attempts at defecting. Perhaps Puig will someday share his struggles he had in leaving Cuba, but I think that his new found success has really created that perfect devilish grin of his.
With a new focus on international talent, Puig is a symbol of the Dodgers’ fresh outlook at scouting and player development. If not only for his pure baseball talent, Puig’s personal journey along with his impact on the international market and the Dodgers themselves really shows what an important player Puig has been to baseball this past season. The Dodgers weren’t the only ones benefitting from Puig’s prowess. Major League Baseball capitalized on Puig’s skills as well as his controversy in 2013 which translates into more ticket sales and revenue for MLB.
Jose Fernandez may beat out Puig for the Rookie of the Year Award, and if the Miami rookie pitcher does win I won’t be overly upset. Fernandez had a fantastic season for the Marlins, but the Marlins were never competitive. Puig directly influenced this 2013 Dodger team and sparked his teammates on and off the field. Puig represented fun again in the clubhouse, and this was reflected in the success the Dodgers had after he joined the team. If Puig had been on the team from Opening Day, he probably would have won the Rookie of the Year Award without so much as a second thought.
Regardless of his start date, Puig made a huge impression on baseball and became a household name. Whether other teams were talking trash about Puig or gushing about his raw talent, everyone was talking about Yasiel Puig. Even if No. 66 doesn’t win the Rookie of the Year Award next week, Puig’s ripple effect will continue to be felt throughout baseball.