he Los Angeles Dodgers have been waiting and waiting for Yasiel Puig to snap out of a funk and resemble his All-Star-caliber self once again. At the risk of speaking too soon at a time when appearances in baseball can be deceiving, here it is: The wait appears to be over.
With a 10-2 laugher Thursday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, L.A. clinched a victory in a four-game series against the San Diego Padres in which Puig was the best player on the field.
He came to the plate 16 times and collected five hits and four walks. Three of those hits left the ballpark, giving him the early MLB lead in home runs.
The obvious caveat is that Weaver isn’t exactly in his prime anymore. The veteran right-hander is suffering from a drastic velocity loss (down to 83 mph on his fastball in 2016) and, not so coincidentally, a bad case of homeritis.
In a related story, Puig’s home run on Wednesday night came off Trevor Cahill. He was an effective reliever in parts of 2015 and 2016, but is even further removed from his years as an effective starter than Weaver is.
But while some of Puig’s hot start is indeed him beating up on bad Padres pitching, the part that’s him reaping the benefits of real changes is not to be underestimated.
After starring to the tune of an .888 OPS and 35 homers in 2013 and 2014, he managed just a .758 OPS with 11 homers in 2015 and a .740 OPS with 11 homers in 2016.
It wasn’t just his results that indicated something was wrong. Although he’s still only 26, Puig’s swing already seemed to have lost the explosiveness it had when he first broke through.
It was clear during spring training that the right fielder was trying something different to get his swing back on track. Those efforts have carried over into the regular season.
With his new mechanics, Puig doesn’t have to uncoil as much when he swings. This is actually an adjustment the Dodgers have tried to make him do in the past, with the idea being to give him more time to see the ball and be quicker to it when he does swing.
In theory, among the benefits would be fewer strikeouts and more walks. Lo and behold, Puig collected only one strikeout to go with the four walks he drew against San Diego.
The home runs are also a good return on Puig’s investment, especially given that each was a laser to left field. He had lost his ability to do that, going from a 39.5 hard-hit rate to his pull side in 2013 to a 34.5 hard-hit rate in 2016.
The fact that he has a new approach also helps. Like many hitters in today’s game, Puig is aiming to get the ball in the air, as Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times reports:
Yasiel Puig on his approach: “I’m thinking about hitting the ball in the air, or else there’s going to be no money in my pocket.”
Of course, Puig didn’t just bring a new swing and new approach into 2017.
It’s easy to lose sight of it amid all the other controversies he’s been involved in, but there has been bad noise about his weight during his career. He gained weight ahead of 2014 and didn’t take a weight-loss program for 2016 too seriously.
Whether Puig’s weight affected his performance is hard to prove, but it could be a reason his swing slowed down. It’s even more plausible that being heavier contributed to his frequent injuries in 2015 and 2016.
So, it’s no wonder he finally got the message.
“If God permits me, I’m trying to be more healthy and doing what I need to do to better myself,” he said in January of the program he was on for 2017, according to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com. “I had made the decision to eat healthier and be at a good weight to run better.”
Several months later, Puig doesn’t resemble the bowling ball of a man he used to be.
That’s a good athlete right there. And it’s safe to assume this one still has a good arm attached to him, to boot.
Lest anyone get too excited, there’s another caveat beyond the lousiness of the Padres to keep in mind.
That’s that Puig has done this kind of thing before. There were flashes of his younger self even in 2015 and 2016, but they were easy come, easy go. That could end up being true of this latest flash as well.
It sure does look more real than the others, however. Those were faulty versions of Puig having moments of clarity. This one is a new-and-improved version of Puig taking off.
And for the Dodgers, it can mean the return of a star they seemed to have lost for good.
By Zachary Rymer