The Puig question: Can the Wild Horse be tamed?
Dodgers hope enigmatic outfielder utilizes tools and avoids sophomore jinx
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Teammates are counting on Yasiel Puig, so the 20-pound soft underbelly (on what a year ago was a chiseled body) is viewed by many as a cautionary yellow flag.
Another is the two days off Puig took last week after fouling a batting-practice pitch off his right leg. And the fact that he's the last to arrive for practice more often than the first. He had two hits and drove in the Dodgers' only run in Wednesday's Cactus League opener, but the clubhouse can be an unforgiving place when a young player takes perceived liberties.
So coming off a jaw-dropping debut month that was followed by his share of struggles as last season wore on, Puig is being monitored carefully to see if he's another Mike Trout or another Joe Charboneau.
For those unfamiliar with Charboneau's tale, he was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1980, was back in the Minor Leagues in 1981 and out of the game by 1985. Just Google "baseball sophomore jinx" and you can read all about him.
"My theory on the sophomore thing is that it's a lack of concentration the following year," said Pat Corrales, the Dodgers' special advisor to the general manager. "This game isn't automatic, no matter how much ability you have. You have to work. That's why [Clayton] Kershaw is so good. He doesn't stop working."
Corrales managed against Charboneau and witnessed the infamous flameout.
"I don't think he applied himself after his rookie year," he said. "And his stuff off the field blew up. He was a talented player. But he was different."
So is Puig. He didn't play like a rookie last year, or act like one. After being rushed from Double-A, he was the loudest voice in the Major League clubhouse, the opposite of what's expected from rookies. He showed all five tools in abundance, set records his first month in the Major Leagues and lit a fire under a foundering team with an enthusiasm that bordered on recklessness.
But the outfielder's lack of Minor League seasoning showed in countless missed cutoffs and baserunning mistakes, then an inability to adjust to pitchers who exploited holes in his batting approach.
He's flamboyant and theatrical. But he's also immature. He's been removed from a game for lack of hustle and he showed up late for another. His speeding arrests and contempt for the media have overshadowed his charitable offseason work with young people.
Management has treated Puig more with kid gloves than iron fists since he signed a seven-year, $42 million contract. It's not easy to harness the Wild Horse, broadcaster Vin Scully's nickname for the 23-year-old Cuban.
If you wonder what opponents think of Puig, just know that in four months he was hit by pitches 11 times, more than Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente or Mickey Mantle were ever plunked in one season. Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt -- who led the league in homers, RBIs and slugging percentage last year -- was hit by only three pitches. Puig is either an unlucky magnet for pitches or a target.
"I think he'll be all right, because the third baseman [Juan Uribe] and shortstop [Hanley Ramirez] and first baseman [Adrian Gonzalez] talk to him a lot," said Corrales. "We've got accomplished players and we need to get them to teach the young players so we hand it down."
Ramirez was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2006. In contrast to Charboneau, Ramirez's second year was even better than his first.
"Everybody told me the pitchers would make adjustments the second year, but I never thought about that," Ramirez said. "You've got to be mentally strong, that's the key for Puig. For me, I learned to take more walks. You take what they give you and don't try to do too much."
Gonzalez said circumstances have forced Puig to learn under a Major League spotlight what most players are allowed to learn in the Minor Leagues. As have many before him, he's doing it in a new country, learning a new language and culture.
"He's not just learning baseball, but life," said Gonzalez. "When I came up, I learned a lot from Sandy Alomar Jr. But I learned in the Minor Leagues and I learned from sitting on the bench. I will try to help Puig when I feel the time is right. You pick your battles. I'm not going to be in his face to where he thinks I don't like him. I'll help for his benefit as a player and a person and for the team's benefit."
The other side to the Puig story is how great he might become. Because of his tools, especially the bazooka arm in right field, Puig reminds some of Clemente, the late Hall of Famer.
"He's getting close to that level," said Dodgers coach Manny Mota, Clemente's teammate in Pittsburgh, "because of the intensity and passion that he plays the game."
Clemente was a 20-year-old rookie in 1955 after being taken from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 Draft. He didn't break out offensively until 1960, and even at his best had less power and basestealing potential than Puig.
With Puig's ceiling, he can be any kind of player. Manager Don Mattingly intends to lead him off in the batting order because of his dynamic tools, the makeup of the roster and the fact that Puig hasn't yet shown the patience needed to drive in runs.
Mattingly said he's less concerned with the trouble signs than most.
"Anything with Yasiel is a big deal, we understand that," said Mattingly. "We just want to see maturity and adjustments. He's an open book, he's excited all the time. You guys [media] have the last word and paint the picture. Last year, the media turned on him almost overnight, and I thought he got painted wrong and was misunderstood. You expect him to be Derek Jeter with the media. I felt he needed to be cut some slack."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.