The first time ever I saw Yasiel Puig was last year in Glendale, Ariz., at a no-account game between the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers that, for reasons no one was clear on, drew 13,721 spectators, the largest crowd in Cactus League history.
You could have written what I knew about Puig on a matchbook. I knew that he'd signed out of Cuba the year before for $42 million, that he was hitting better than .500, and that he hadn't yet drawn a walk, and for those reasons I sort of dismissed him out of hand, placing him somewhere on the spectrum between impossibly raw and your usual spring anomaly. Then I saw him play.
Puig came on for Carl Crawford in the top of the fifth inning and quickly snared a shot down the line, a tricky play that left him rolling and tumbling out in left. In the bottom of the inning he cracked a double, then rounded third toward home on a nothing-doing chopper like he was daring someone to do something about it. Later on, after singling, he went first to third on a missed pickoff that didn't even miss all that badly, and came within about a step of committing to racing home on another routine grounder.
I took notes on that game, and there are a lot of capitalized and underlined words and exclamation points in them, all of them related to Puig, who was at that moment, I was sure, one of the best players in the National League. He had a .547 average and 18 hits in his last 27 at-bats, and he was all anyone wanted to talk about.
"Uh, wow," said Matt Kemp. "He's trying to make it hard on someone."
Don Mattingly just turned from writer to writer, waggling his eyebrows like Groucho Marx.
"That," said the man who before long would be cast in the role of put-upon dad trying to tame an unruly son, "was like, 'Wow!'"
In his first few games in the majors last June, Puig enlivened baseball by doubling a runner off first in the ninth inning of a 2-1 game, cinching a win with an opposite-field grand slam in the eighth inning of a 1-0 game, and shrugging off a fastball to the face. In his first month, he hit .440 with eight home runs, helping spark a team that had gone 23-32 in its first 55 games to a 38-17 record in its next 55 and saving his manager's job. He did it by playing baseball like it mattered, recklessly and with total commitment.
All the little feints I saw in Arizona—the moves toward home any time he was on the bases and the ball was in play, the swings where he'd pull back not because a pitch was out of his zone but because he was looking for one he could hit harder—were, it turned out, at the heart of his game. Everything he did was fast and violent, directly focused on either putting a run on the board or keeping one off of it. This didn't fit today's prevailing style of play, with its obsessive focus on patience and restraint, but it worked just fine for him.
Last year, Puig swung at nearly 40 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, the seventh-highest percentage in the league, and still had what would have been the third-best slugging average if he'd had enough at-bats to qualify. He routinely threw ahead of the runner, leading to the occasional botch and also to some assists out of the Bo Jackson playbook, where he'd just casually lay one in from deep right and nail a fast runner trying to sneak by for an extra base. He misjudged plays often enough to make the second-most outs on the bases of anyone in the majors, and he still took the extra base as often as Mike Trout.
All of this made him something of a paradox. You're not supposed to swing full-on at curves off the plate, throw right past the cutoff man, or look to stretch every single into a triple; those are losing plays, the kind undisciplined players make because they just can't help themselves. And yet there was nothing really undisciplined about Puig's game. He more than paid off all his mistakes with plays nearly no one else could have made.
As the season wore on, and he made the kind of adjustments that mark a canny player—he cut his strikeout-to-walk ratio in half from June to September, for instance—it became pretty clear that he knew what he was doing, and that most of his mistakes mainly had to do with his risk tolerance. Overall, he was doing as much for his team as anyone else in the league, anyway. In another sport, people might basically have shrugged at his idiosyncrasies and mentioned something about all the different ways there are to square a circle. Baseball is different.
The problem with Yasiel Puig was, and is, the problem with his sport. It's a regimented, orderly game that demands you do things a certain way every time you do them because you do them so often. The theory behind not swinging at a curve right off the plate isn't just that it's a low-percentage play; it's that over 162 games, small numbers add up and make large ones. This leads to the twin beliefs that there is a definitively right way to play—see the Cardinals Way, the Brian McCann experience, your more doctrinaire sabermetrics types, etc.—and that there is actual moral value to doing things that way. (It's telling that statistics on which pitches a player swings at are registered under "plate discipline," as if free swingers were inherently undisciplined, actively irresponsible.)
In a game in which aggressive, risk-taking play registers on some level as possibly immoral, the perceived line between a player's game and who he is can be pretty thin. And so while Puig's irrepressible brilliance on the field reads as heroism to a lot of people—how many ballplayers have a grindcore band named after them?—the corollary is that there are a lot of people to whom all the curves and cutoff men he's missed, and all the bases he's overshot, signify not just loose play but true carelessness, all of this reinforced by off-field escapades that range from charming (he jumped in the Diamondbacks' pool!) to exasperating (get to work on time, man) to actually wrong (don't drive at too-awesome speeds, there are other people on the road).
Everything that's attractive about Puig, in other words, works two ways. If you think baseball is an overly repressed game in which managers learning to properly value their 27 outs has led to too much risk aversion, tightly controlled farm systems have promoted a sort of stylistic sameness, and so on, a player doing what he's not supposed to and succeeding wildly is a folk hero, and if he's off on some #YOLO jaunt in his private time, so much the better. If you watch baseball like a boring columnist, by contrast, it's hard not to connect the player's recklessness on the field to what he does off of it and run them all together as one thing, in the hysterical and totalizing way of all moralists. Vague irresponsibility on the lines of showing up to work 10 minutes late works as the same as overthrowing the cutoff man, which works as the same as speeding, which works as the same thing as getting caught in a rundown, and all of it describes someone who can't, or at least doesn't deserve to, succeed.
If you were Don Mattingly, you'd have a problem. On the one hand, you'd have Yasiel Puig's petty but real issues: serial lateness, occasionally unsound play, and whatever else. On the other, you'd have not only the reality that he's your best player despite them, but the fact that the better and the worse aren't always so neatly extricable as you'd like.
It's possible that Puig could learn not to swing at obviously terrible pitches or overthrow the cutoff man; he could certainly learn to show up at the ballpark on time. It's also possible, though, that if Puig learned to play as conservatively as some kid who'd come up on a travel team in Virginia and then been drafted right into one of the better-run minor league systems, and learned to moderate his life and get to bed at a proper time and so on, it would beat the spirit out of him along with the heedlessness, and he'd be not just a different player, but a lesser one.
This isn't strictly a baseball point, or even strictly a sports one. If James Agee hadn't spent so much time drinking and talking, he might have written a dozen perfect books, and he might also have been John Updike, writing dozens of perfectly turned and inconsequential ones. If Charles Mingus hadn't been the sort of band leader who punched horn players in the mouth, he might have worked up even better brass sections, and he might also not have written anything so brilliantly angry as "Freedom." What's worst about us is usually bound up with what's best.
This is something even a lot of good managers never work out, and the smartest ones don't bother trying. Over the weekend, Dan Le Batard wrote a nice column about Puig that got into, among other things, how Frank Robinson addressed the problem of Vladimir Guerrero in Montreal by not addressing it at all, lest he mess up a good thing. It went all right; Guerrero made all the on-field mistakes Puig does and worse besides, and still managed a Hall of Fame career. Manny Ramirez was just as clueless and unaware in his way as Puig is in his, and also had a truly nasty streak—remember the time he beat up an old man?—but he, too, managed to be an awesome player despite it all. Maybe there are alternate realities where every flaw those two possessed was worked out nicely, and they played even better baseball than they actually did. This reality, though—the one in which Guerrero and Ramirez and Puig are all incredibly compelling if imperfect players, like DiMaggio and Mantle and Reggie Jackson before them—works fine.
As boring and awful and point-missing as a lot of what's written about Puig is, there's a central truth to it. He's a flawed player who doesn't always act like a professional, and it's at least conceivable that because he stays out all night and isn't really all that committed to learning the difference between the time to head for third and the time to hold, he's never going to reach his full potential, whatever that may be. If Don Mattingly thinks that holding him out of games when he doesn't show up on time, chastising him when his head obviously isn't in the game, or grousing about him to the press will help, he should by all means do it. (To the extent that any of this is performative on Mattingly's part, done principally for the press's benefit, it probably won't help, but whatever.)
These are baseball problems, though. They aren't the makings of a morality play. Puig's flaws, insofar as they're wired in, are basically like an inability to hit backdoor sliders or field hard grounders to the right, and much less serious because they just don't count for all that much. It takes a particular kind of joylessness to fixate on them above everything else about him, because whatever the abstract idea of Puig is, the actual player is special.
Yasiel Puig escaped a Communist dictatorship, signed with baseball's most glamorous team, and as a rookie saved its season from expensive oblivion, creating more indelible moments along the way than several recently elected Hall of Famers did between them. He hits gorgeous home runs and careens around the bases and makes impossible throws, and just by turning up on the field as himself refutes the idea that baseball at the highest level has to be a game of cold orthodoxy. In a league filled with indistinguishable ciphers he stands out, because he's liable at any time not only to do something that no one else could do, but that no one else would do. He's a joy to watch.
If all of this plays into baseball's worst tendencies, which involve vague desires to repress all individuality and kill anything that might actually interest or excite anyone, so be it; there will always be fans who appreciate what they're seeing, no matter who tells them not to. The problem, really, isn't what anyone says about Puig, or even that they might be right. It's that they're missing so much while they say it.
Art by Patrick Truby