How should the Cardinals pitch the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig?
Yasiel Puig swings a lot and hits a lot. That presents the opposing pitchers with some challenges.
ST. LOUIS -- In his first professional season of 2012, Dodgers starburst Yasiel Puig batted .354/.442/.634 across two levels. He opened 2013 by hitting .313/.383/.599 in Double-A. Then came a promotion to the majors, where the 22-year-old Puig authored a slash line of .319/.391/.534 with 19 home runs in 104 games.
All of this raises a rather urgent matter for the Cardinals as Game 1 of the NLCS looms: How do you pitch to a great bad-ball hitter, which is what Puig appears to be.
Immediately, we know Puig can hit and has hit at every level he’s touched. Casual reputation and a glance at his modest walk rate -- 30 unintentional passes in 432 plate appearances with the Dodgers this season -- will also tell you that he’s a bit of a free swinger. The data back that up, as, according to FanGraphs, Puig has higher-than-average swing rate on pitches inside and outside the strike zone. Of course, when you generally crush what you swing at, a seeming lack of restraint at the plate can be a feature rather than a bug. So it is with Puig.
As well, Puig, although an obvious free-swinger, does seem to know the strike zone better than you might think. Take a look at his swing rate (chart courtesy of the essential BrooksBaseball.net) ...
The above strike zone plot is pictured from the catcher's viewpoint, so for a right-handed batter like Puig, the left side of the graphic represents inside pitches. As you can see, if it's in the zone Puig is probably going to take a hack -- those high swing percentages tell you that much. However, also note that those percentages drop substantially as you move outside the strike zone -- even barely outside the strike zone.
To put a finer point on it, again per FanGraphs, the average major-league hitter sees his swing percentage drop by 52.6 percent with pitches outside the strike zone relative to pitches in the zone. Puig, meantime, sees his percentage drop by 51 percent. So in percentage terms relative to that in-the-zone baseline, he lays off pitches off the plate at a rate befitting most hitters in the bigs. That is, he's a free swinger, but he's also a calculated free swinger. Along those same lines, Puig swings at 80 percent of the strikes he sees, whereas the average MLBer swings at 65.5 percent of strikes.
As for making contact, here's how location affects Puig's abilility to put bat on ball (again, thanks to Brooks, from whom all pitch-data blessings flow) ...
Puig's pretty skilled at making contact unless it's in the top third of the zone or low and away and off the plate -- and even then he's likely to put bat on ball. The real issue, though, is what happens to the balls he hits. Now here's a zone plot showing Puig's slugging percentage based on pitch location ...
We’re dealing with a data sample that’s somewhat limited -- he's a rookie, of course -- and that's especially the case in some of these rarely explored pitch locations. With that said, the best "cold spot" in terms of a low SLG surrounded by blocks of other non-devastating SLGs appears to be low and away. You'll want to miss further away, though, as anything middle in has a chance of being banged off a wall. Also note that, as demonstrated by the top-most chart, Puig will still bite on extreme low-and-away stuff roughly half the time. So when he's at the dish those are "chase pitches," not "waste pitches."
As for types of pitches least favored by Puig, the short answer is that you should probably thow off-speed stuff to him. The visual aid ...
Brooks defines off-speed pitches as, of course, changeups and splitters. Again, sample-size concerns abound, as he faced those kinds of pitches just 166 times in the regular season. With that said, he has shown an overall tendency to swing and miss at change-of-pace offerings. Given what Puig does when he makes contact (.331 AVG on ground balls, .833 SLG on fly balls, 1.381 OPS on line drives), making him whiff is highly advisable.
Insofar as the Cardinals are concered, Joe Kelly, Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright -- the starters for Game 1, 2 and 3, respectively -- don't throw a single splitter among them. However, each throws a changeup, and Wacha in particular leans on his quite a bit at times. So will you see Cardinals pitchers work Puig to set up the changeup low and away? The data suggest that might be the best way to approach the generally unapproachable Puig.
We'll see if that's the case, and then we'll see if it works. Given Puig's skills as a hitter, there are no ideal answers, but throwing off his timing and finding that spot that's at once tantilizing yet generally unreachable for him is perhaps the best answer.