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Yasiel Puig: Picking up where he left off

Ray takes a look at Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig's performance to date and opines that his critics might be back-pedaling right now.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

I don't need to tell you what kind of season Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig had in 2013, as his name was all over the headlines of most baseball sites from June through September. He was one of the best players in the game in the 104 games he played, hitting .319-.391-.534 with 19 home runs, 66 runs, 42 RBI and 11 stolen bases. He struck out at a 23% rate, while walking at a 8% rate. Not bad for a guy who's life was threatened in spring training, huh?

Coming into the 2014 season, Puig's name was in the headlines once again, but nothing baseball related. Back in December, he was arrested for speeding, driving 115 mph in a 65 mph zone. He then reported to spring training 20-25 pounds overweight, catching the wrath of manager Don Mattingly. Finally, in mid-April, stories were published at multiple sites recounting details of Puig's escape from Cuba, including his affiliation with a suspected felon who is wanted by U.S. authorities. Certainly not what Dodgers fans or Puig owners wanted to hear heading into the 2014 season. Any negative news seems to get blown up due to the lack of big stories in spring training and early in the season.

Many fantasy writers I respect were vocal about staying away from Puig on draft day, opining that Puig was going to regress in 2014. They also felt that he was more of a risk due to his on field and off field issues.

While the reasons are very different, the almost universal panning of Puig reminded me of all the writers who panned Mike Trout before the 2013 season. Trout was coming off a remarkable 2012 season where he finished second in MVP voting and led the majors in WAR, but all he did was put up his second 10 WAR season in a row. The easy narrative is to critique a player's ability to repeat a very good rookie season. Regression is one of the more popular reasons used to support claims that a player cannot repeat their performance from the prior season.

Well, Yasiel Puig had other ideas. In the face of all the negative headlines, reports that he is still learning to play the game the right way, Puig is quietly putting up another very solid season at the plate. After going 6-12 in the Dodgers double header sweep of the Twins yesterday, Puig is hitting .309-.396-.495 with three home runs, five doubles, two triples, 12 runs scored, 17 RBI and two stolen bases in three attempts. His 1.3 WAR is tied for 10th in baseball, with teammates Juan Uribe and Adrian Gonzalez, and Rays outfielder Ben Zobrist. His 157 wRC+ ranks tied for t14th in baseball, along with Freddie Freeman and Yadier Molina, and ahead of Carlos Gomez and Jose Abreu, two players receiving more headlines thus far in 2014.

There is reason to believe that Puig could be better going forward too. He has reduced his K% from 22.5% to 18.6%, and improved his walk rate from 8.3% to 9.7% so far in 2014. His .370 batting average of balls in play could lead one to reason that it will regress from such a high level, but his batted ball profile shows that it could rise from here. He is hitting just 13% line drives thus far, down from 19% in 2013, so his batting average could rise from here. In addition, his HR/FB% sits at 11.5%, down from 21.8% last season, so we could see more long balls off his bat going forward as well.

I ranked Puig as my 27th overall player in fantasy baseball this season, higher than many of my counterparts at other sites. He was a polarizing player back in spring training, but, as the season goes along, many will start second-guessing ranking him lower, or staying away from him on draft day.