Dodgers’ Puig defies baseball’s unwritten rules

Yasiel Puig has brought back a sense of excitement that baseball has been missing. (Barry Gutierrez/AP)

Let’s have a little chat about Yasiel Puig.

If you’ve been watching these playoffs—or baseball in general since June—you’ve likely figured out he’s the most exciting guy going. He plays the game in a feverous frenzy, straddling the border between passion and madness, defiantly challenging anyone to stop him from running amok. He is such an aggressive, unruly figure in the game; the kind of presence that it needs, frankly, in order to avoid slipping into a competition between the boring and the mundane. Boston’s beards aside, baseball can seem like a cavalcade of emotionless, personality-devoid automatons, robotically spitting tobacco and readjusting their jocks before hitting a gapper and running hard enough to show genuine human effort but not so hard as to be reckless.

It’s so cool that despite the game’s best attempts to quell enthusiasm, players like Puig can still break through. We haven’t seen a more captivating, exciting-to-watch player enter the league in years. Even putting aside his theatrics, it’s been incredible to watch his development at the plate.

In the early going, Puig swung the bat like he thought he could hit anything. He made Vladimir Guerrero and Yogi Berra look like patient hitters. Two months into his career he was swinging at 41.5 per cent of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone. Plus, he was swinging and missing on 21.8 per cent of all the pitches he saw—by far the worst rate in the majors. But in August he brought those numbers down, a trend he continued in September when his swinging-strike percentage receded to 15.8 per cent and he was offering at 35.7 per cent of pitches outside the zone, just 4.7 per cent above the league average. Puig made a massive adjustment to major league pitching very quickly, the kind of advanced fine tuning that takes most 22-year-olds entire seasons to pull off.

And it’s not like he lost his aggressiveness. He swung at the first pitch he saw in 43 percent of his 2013 plate appearances, batting .551 with a 1.642 OPS when he connected. He turned nine of those first pitches into home runs. Every at-bat was appointment viewing.

But, after the St. Louis Cardinals claimed victory over his Dodgers Tuesday night, taking a 3-1 lead in the NLCS, you may only get one more chance to watch him. The Cardinals won clinically, stringing together hits when they needed them and working around a smattering of Los Angeles baserunners, before handing things over to a bullpen that has allowed just one run in 14 NLCS innings. And yet by far the most exciting play of the game had little to do with the Cardinals at all. It came in the fourth inning, when Puig, with runners on first and second, barreled a full-count curveball into centrefield, scoring the Dodgers’ first run.

Chavez Ravine shook to its core, as 54,000 people lost it. Sure, any timely post-season hit at home will encourage a similar response, but Puig’s big moments always feel a bit more meaningful, don’t they? Like something significant is occurring before us. Like Puig is a referendum on baseball and the way some insist it should be played. Like he’s a generational juncture—a turning point in the contemporary history of the game.

Take Monday night. Puig comes up to bat in the fourth inning of game three riding an 0-for-11 train that has the ever-present stuffed suits who are paid to prognosticate about such things prognosticating that he’s a stiff. Yasiel Puig has no playoff experience, you see. He’s never played on such a grand stage. Plus, he’s selfish and too emotional. He still has so much to learn about playing at this level—he has to slow down his thoughts, let the game come to him.

It all makes so much sense. Because the game of baseball is a completely narrative-powered exercise, played in a land where intangibles and abstractions account for all of life’s events. It’s about reducing any possible complexity into easily followed plot lines that are comprehensible on a grade-school level. Everything must fit into neatly packed fable boxes. The rules of logical reason and tangible causality that govern the rest of us do not apply in the world of baseball. The whole operation is run, apparently, on magic.

Anyway, Puig’s at the dish and things have not been going well. He struck out looking his last time—his fifth punch out in as many plate appearances. He’s looked a little lost as the Cardinals have successfully exploited his few weaknesses: breaking pitches early in the count followed by hard stuff away and diving changeups with two strikes. But right now Puig’s ahead in the count 2-1, and Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, trying to get him to chase a fastball outside, leaves a pitch over the plate, which Puig slices to right field. The thing is hit so hard that Puig thinks its gone, so he tosses his bat in the air and takes a few steps out of the batter’s box, watching it fly with his arms raised above his head. At Yankee Stadium it’s a home run easily, but at Dodger Stadium it’s off the wall, and now it’s rolling towards Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran while Puig’s still strolling to first base.

This is where Puig gets to be Puig. He reaches first and, like Man o’ War at Belmont, he’s suddenly flying, stride after stride digging up infield dirt as he hits second on a textbook angle and dashes for third. He’s already slowing down and clapping his hands when he’s halfway there, pulling up with a triple on what would have been either a long single or a close double for most mortals.

It was so awesome. Just pure, unbridled conviction and excitement. Yet, the popular discourse after this incredible event had little to do with how much thrill Puig injects into the game or how refreshing his style of play is in a baseball universe that often seems to value the commonplace over the exhilarating. It was about the apparently disrespectful nature of his premature merriment; how he wasn’t taking his job seriously by not sprinting out of the batter’s box immediately. How his third base celebration was insulting to the Cardinals. How Puig doesn’t play the game the right way.

You know, we’re all still waiting for the manual on how this game is supposed to be played. If everyone involved with the sport over the age of 40 is going to insist on citing this ambiguous guide by which ballplayers are to conduct themselves, the least they can do is produce it. It’s unclear why baseball sometimes seems so intrinsically opposed to fun. Puig is its Ovechkin. Its Favre. He’s insanely talented, has a massive personality and plays the game so differently from everyone else that he can’t help but stand out with everything he does. This guy is so marketable it’s insane. But the unshakable, archaic culture of doing things the right way that permeates every square inch of the game is strong. So until Puig conforms and adheres to the unwritten rules of baseball, he will continue to be criticized from all angles for his play.

But thankfully we still get to watch him do his thing, for one more afternoon at least. There isn’t a better show in the game today.

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