Baseball / Sports

All eyes on Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig

NEW YORK -- The Yasiel Puig show visited the Big Apple this week, and for ESPN's "Wednesday Night Baseball" broadcast, the network employed an iso-cam on the world's most polarizing outfielder.

While Jon Sciambi and Rick Sutcliffe called the Dodgers-Mets game from a Citi Field booth, analyst Doug Glanville was stationed out in centerfield, two TV monitors situated in front of him on a makeshift desk, with an unclouded perspective of Puig and his outfield counterparts. At home in his former position, Glanville, the former Phillies centerfielder, was tasked with evaluating the defensive performances of the game's six outfielders, among other things.

You can make an educated guess as to which outfielder much of the dialogue centered on.

Although he's yet to play the equivalent of a full major league season, Puig has been one of baseball's most compelling and oft-discussed players since he broke in last June. Whether it's the historically great start to his career, the unique stories of his defection from Cuba or his signature emphatic bat flips, the dynamic 23-year-old is seemingly always the subject of chatter around the baseball world.

Love him or loathe him, there's no denying Puig is exciting to watch. His talent, coupled with his aggressive style of play, causes its share of consternation among fans, columnists and analysts alike. Not to mention opposing players, whom he has the tendency to sometimes rub the wrong way. Just a couple of weeks ago, San Francisco pitcher Madison Bumgarner got into a shouting match with Puig after the young star flipped his bat on a home run.

But Puig, 146 games into his big-league career, says he isn't going to change his approach to the game to appease opponents.

"It's my style," he said through a translator while about 15 reporters huddled around his locker before Wednesday's game against the Mets. "It's the way I've played baseball for a long time. I don't really worry about the other team or what other players think about me, other than our team. As far as what other people think, I try to play the game hard and I try to play the game happy. I want to have a good time when I'm playing. This is a game of entertainment. I don't play it to offend people. But I do have a good time playing the game of baseball."

Nearly a third of the way through his sophomore season, Puig has provided an impressive encore to his first act, when he sparked the Dodgers and their season turnaround. His .319 batting average, 19 homers and 42 RBI in 104 games were enough to finish as the runner-up to the Marlins' Jose Fernandez for National League Rookie of the Year honors.

Less than two months from now, Puig will likely head to his first All-Star Game. He entered Thursday night tied for second in the majors in OPS (1.037), third in slugging (.610) and fifth in batting average (.333). His 37 RBI are second in the National League to only Giancarlo Stanton (45), the Marlins' young slugger the Phillies just got done dealing with.

"Guys that love to play, you can just see it," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I think that's what people love about Yasiel. You've got that Little League quality that's just loving playing baseball. I think that's what people really like seeing, a guy that plays hard, with that energy and then the talent."

A telling stat this season has been Puig's walk total, as he has vastly improved his plate discipline. He walked just 36 times in 104 games last year. He had already has drawn 21 free passes this season entering Thursday night.

"I just think he's making adjustments," Mattingly said of the biggest differences from Puig this year to last. "He's seeing his outfield become more under control, staying with his base-running, patience at the plate. So really his whole game has just matured. I think that maturity has really been the key for him."

Wednesday was Puig's 22nd consecutive game reaching base. On Sunday, he had a 16-game hitting streak snapped. In each of the last eight games of that career-high streak, he had an extra-base hit and drove in at least a run, breaking a nearly 29-year-old club record.

In addition to his plate discipline, Puig said he feels he's improved in base-running and hitting the cutoff man; his overthrows last season were well-documented.

"(Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez) is one of the guys who talks to me a lot about when you're facing pitchers up here with the stuff they have here at the major league level, it's tough when you swing at balls out of the strike zone," Puig said through the translator. "So that's been one of the things I've been trying to work on and obviously the success I've had the last month or so hitting strikes has shown up in the numbers."

Trips to opposing ballparks can include their share of boisterous Puig detractors. While he stood in the batter's box in the sixth inning on Wednesday, several fans along the first-base line directed an "Over-rated" chant at No. 66. The 6-3, 235-pound slugger responded by lining a Jacob deGrom fastball over the fence in left-centerfield. The Dodgers went on to win, 4-3.

"He's got the swagger, the confidence and I think obviously it changed the culture of Dodger baseball last year," said Glanville, who was seated near the home run's landing spot. "He came up and they rattled off that 42 out of 50 (wins). I think he was a big part of that."

Nomar Garciaparra, another former big-leaguer-turned-broadcaster, has watched Puig all season as a member of the Dodgers' broadcast team for the new SportsNet LA. The six-time All-Star shortstop said he has enjoyed watching Puig adjust and grow the more experience the talented outfielder garners.

"What I love about him is he plays to win," Garciaparra said. "That's not always the case with everybody, but he goes out there and plays to win.

"You've got to love a guy like that."

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