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June 10, 2014

Moonshot

Learning from Yasiel Puig's First Year

by Robert Arthur


Recently, Yasiel Puig had his one-year MLB anniversary (Puigiversary?), which caused much uproar and a deluge of odes to his ability, presumably along with a handful of curmudgeonly rants about his bat flips. Despite the seeming overabundance of press attention given to Puig, that attention is well-deserved. In his first full year, he’s become among the best players in baseball.

Almost everything there is to write about Puig’s innate ability and penchant for guffaw-inducing bloopers has already been written, and in any case, I’m already late to the Puigiversary party. I want to focus on another aspect of Puig’s performance, namely the way the league has approached him, with the hope that we can learn something about how pitchers approach young players in general. I’ve written at length about how the manner in which pitchers target hitters can inform us about those hitters. In some cases, we can forecast changes in hitter ability by observing the league’s approach to each hitter and whether it varies over the course of a season.

In Puig’s case, MLB advance scouts had an extremely difficult task in making their reports. Puig was no regular rookie, having played and dominated at the highest level of Cuban baseball for some time. But whereas some leagues are roughly comparable in facilities and record-keeping to American leagues (e.g. NPB), Cuban baseball is a different beast. The statistics of Cuban baseball are beset by issues ranging from inaccurate records to inconsistently maintained fields.

Even with that difficulty, scouts noticed a flaw in Puig’s game. Athletically superb, Puig could catch up to any in-zone fastball and drive it a long way. His perceived weakness was in recognizing and chasing breaking balls. The thought went that by placing lots of breaking balls at the edges of the plate, Puig could be induced to hack wildly at them as they faded away. If this report was to be believed, then the best way to defeat Puig was to challenge his patience by forcing him to watch as outside, breaking pitches laced the edges.

Accordingly, early efforts against Puig consisted of a steady diet of pitches well away from the center of the zone (a metric I measure and call “zone distance”). Zone distance varies by the quality of the hitter: An average hitter sees his median pitch 1.04 feet from the center of his zone, but the top 10 hitters (by TAv) of 2013 saw pitches 1.1 feet from the center of their zones. In the initial 500 pitches that Puig saw, his zone distance was 1.2 feet from the center of the zone, indicating both a healthy fear of Puig’s bat and a lack of confidence in Puig’s plate discipline. Examine the trend in Puig’s zone distance, however, and a downward progression emerges.

Normally, a collapse in zone distance of this magnitude tends to portend a decline in that hitters’ skill level. But in the case of the Wild Horse, I think it’s the opposite: Pitchers tried to challenge Puig with out of zone pitches, realized quickly that it wasn’t working, and shifted their tactics to test him in a different way.

Puig has many exceptional attributes: His bat speed is superlative, his athleticism Bo Jackson-esque, his defense often outstanding, and so on. But an underappreciated aspect of Puig’s game is his ability to adapt. As Puig was seeing more strikes (and a generally lower zone distance), he learned to tailor his game to the new pitching regime, as the following graph shows. I’ve plotted here the distance from the zone center of all of the pitches that Puig took swings at (swing distance).

The first thing to note is that his initial swing distance, although high (had it continued, it would have been 10th in MLB in 2013), was commensurate with the ridiculously high zone distance that pitchers gave him to start with. He was by no means the undisciplined hacker the scouting reports made him out to be. The second trend should be obvious: As Puig saw pitches closer to the center of the zone, he took advantage by becoming more selective.

These trends carried on into this year. In his last 250 pitches of the 2013 season, Puig’s zone distance hovered around a median of 1.16 feet from the zone center. In his first 250 pitches of the 2014 season, Puig’s zone distance was 1.18 feet from the zone center and declining rapidly, thus carrying on the trend from last season. Even so, the scouting report on Puig in the 2014 season has already vacillated substantially, as the following graph shows.

While it’s still early in the season, it looks like teams have reversed their prior course of challenging Puig closer and closer to the zone. Instead, in the last month or so they have pushed Puig’s zone distance back up, although Puig thus far hasn’t altered his swing distance in response.

A high zone distance combined with a low swing distance is perhaps the best combination for a hitter, and the union of the two may explain some part of Puig’s recent run of success. That synthesis implies that pitchers are afraid of the batter and unwilling to challenge him, but when they do hang a pitch in the zone, the batter does a good job of taking advantage. This kind of patience is a recipe for high BABIP, solid power, and good plate discipline, the hallmarks of an excellent hitter. If Puig can continue to evolve over the course of seasons to match the varying ways in which pitchers provoke him, he will not only maximize the gifts of his athleticism, he will remain an excellent hitter as his skills develop and change.

Jose Abreu
Let’s contrast Puig’s first year with the debut another Cuban import, Jose Abreu. You might think that after two similar Cuban sluggers (Yoenis Cespedes and Puig) hit American shores, scouts would be prepared for the arrival of Abreu. However, in some regards (notably, his lack of minor league experience), the scout’s conundrum for Abreu was even worse than what confronted them with Puig. Even though Abreu outperformed Puig in the time they played together in the Series Nacional, it was once again unknown whether that superlative showing would translate to the major leagues. Over at BP headquarters, the computer churned out a list of confounding comparables for Abreu, including Ryan Shealy and Travis Ishikawa as well as Justin Morneau and Chris Davis. Statistically, we could say with confidence that 1) Jose Abreu was going to play first base and 2) he was going to be somewhere between replacement level and MVP-caliber.

Abreu has (so far) been outstanding, so whatever opposing pitchers’ tactical plan of attack was, it hasn’t worked. Still, it is interesting to ask whether the league handled him similarly to Puig, or whether it learned from that failure.

Just as in Puig’s case, the average zone distance starts off quite high and slowly falls off to a more reasonable level. As with Puig, the thought process might have been to test Abreu’s plate discipline first. Initially, it appeared that Abreu might conquer that crucible with ease; his walk rate started out high. However, with a mere 12 total walks on the season, Abreu may be starting to show a weakness. Unlike Puig, whose approach became more disciplined as he saw better and more hittable pitches, Abreu’s swing distance has risen.

Abreu’s swing distance trend is troubling, but it is certainly too early to call it problematic. With both Cuban imports, it is clear that MLB opponents didn’t know how to tackle their skills early on, to the dramatic detriment of the first several pitchers Puig and Abreu faced. This early run of success suggests that opposing pitchers have never really found an effective baseline zone distance for Puig and Abreu. It might be the case that Abreu’s power stroke is so sweet that he can drive even borderline pitches out of the park, in which case swing discipline becomes less of an issue (see Vladimir Guerrero for an extreme example of this phenomenon). Conversely, it might be that Abreu was having such a great time hitting a record-breaking number of homers that he became a little too freewheeling in his habits and is in line for a negative correction. In the latter case, as we saw with Puig, the question becomes one of adaptation, namely whether Abreu can balance his behavior to reflect the tendencies of the pitchers he’s facing.

In wrapping up, I want to highlight how different (from a PITCHf/x perspective) Puig’s and Abreu’s debuts have been from that of George Springer, a prospect with similar characteristics. I chose Springer for this exercise because he is a highly touted slugger with a history of plate discipline issues, culminating in a ~30 percent projected K rate at the major league level (per PECOTA’s reckoning).

Yet while Puig and Abreu were attacked with lots of out-of-zone junk, pitchers threw Springer a different regimen.

That zone distance at the start (1.04 in his first 250 pitches) is decidedly average: It slots Springer in with hitters like Conor Gillaspie and Kelly Johnson. There are a few ways to interpret that fact. One is that pitchers really didn’t respect Springer and thought that he lacked the ability to drive their strikes over the wall, which doesn’t line up with Springer’s solid prospect pedigree and noted potential. Another interpretation arises from an interrogation of Springer’s swing distance graph.

Consider the baseline swing distance Springer maintained for his first 100 swings: ~.65 feet from the zone center. That kind of patience wouldn’t be elite in MLB, it would be unheard of: The lowest swing distance in 2013 belonged to Anthony Rendon (another rookie who was approached in a similar fashion), and that was .68.

Hitters simply can’t be that selective about which pitches they swing at because pitchers are good enough to almost never throw so close to the zone’s center. There’s plenty of real estate in the zone at the edges, which major league hurlers can hit with relative ease. If Springer was only going to swing at the junk that happened to fall dead center, he was going to strike out at an unacceptably high level.

But lo and behold, Springer adjusted his swing distance upward, becoming less selective. Again, we see the mark of a (potentially) good hitter: the ability to adjust to meet the demands of the pitcher’s plan of attack. The hits and home runs have followed. Assuming Springer can continue in this progression, he ought to have a chance to be productive.

The Virtues of Adaptation
Puig prompted this piece, and Puig highlights a foundational aspect of skilled sluggers in MLB: adaptability. In the early days of a hitter’s debut, both the league’s pitchers (backed up by scouts and front-office types) and the hitter are adjusting to each other, attempting to determine each other’s skills, strengths, and weaknesses. For both Abreu and Puig, the league started by challenging their respective abilities to take a ball. On the other hand, pitchers attacked George Springer in the opposite fashion, daring him to swing by throwing numerous strikes. Puig was able to take what the pitchers gave him and improve on his plate discipline to match the strikes he was seeing. Whether Abreu and Springer continue to build on their success or fail will hinge, at least in part, on whether they too can adapt.

For these three hitters and many others, these graphs highlight the constant struggle that goes on underneath the nightly stats and before the balls and strikes. In every game, pitchers are devising new and clever ways to draw the hitter into a foolhardy swing or a called strike. The differences between a called strike and a home run may amount to an inch or so, but aggregated over a few hundred pitches, it becomes clear how feared a hitter is and whether he can adapt to whatever novel strategies the pitcher crafts. With a little help from PITCHf/x, we now can visualize this constant feud and perhaps get a sense of which hitters are destined for greatness and which will fade when the league figures them out.

Robert Arthur is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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