2019 Player Profile: Yasiel Puig Settles In
I’ve spent this offseason looking at players whose fantasy stock was elevated or depressed by surprising 2018 seasons. Today, I’ll touch on a player who bounced back from a series of underwhelming seasons to turn in his most productive performance in four years, only to be traded by the reigning NL champs. Early ADP data suggest that owners are overlooking Yasiel Puig, who can contribute across the board and who Steamer projects as a top 40 hitter in 2019.
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Yasiel Puig 2018 Bounce-back
Yasiel Puig endured two minor DL stints in 2018, but, when healthy, he produced at a level we haven’t seen from him in years. Despite hitting only 444 times in 2018, he smashed 23 home runs and tied a career-high in stolen bases (15). It doesn’t seem that Puig made any drastic changes; instead, he was just the best version of himself across the board. He set career-bests in zone contact, hard contact, and line drive rates, cutting his ground-ball rate by six points from the year prior. I don’t think Puig’s become a fly ball revolutionary, though, so much as he’s become a more consistent hitter. His launch angle distributions tell an encouraging story.
We can consider balls hit between 5 and 25 degrees to be something of a launch angle sweet spot. Although those are something of arbitrary cutoffs, that encompasses most line drives and well-struck fly balls; even without considering exit velocity, hitters slugged .963 on batted balls in that launch angle band in 2018. Most hitters don’t worry explicitly about their launch angles. Almost all of them, though, target contact within this general area.
So how does this relate to Puig? As you might be able to predict, Puig filled up that sweet spot with more consistency than ever last year. He had a career-high 102 batted balls launched between 5 and 25 degrees, more impressive considering his playing time was held back by the aforementioned injuries. It’s not the sexiest change, but Yasiel Puig was a more consistent hitter than ever in 2018.
One person seemingly buying Puig’s subtle improvement from 2018 is Turner Ward. The Dodgers’ hitting coach from 2016-2018, Ward was hired to coach Cincinnati’s hitters in November. A month later, the Reds traded two of their better prospects to acquire Puig and Alex Wood. The Reds’ front office no doubt inquired Ward’s opinion on his old pupil before pulling the trigger. Beyond affording Puig some measure of stability and comfort by keeping him with a hitting coach to whom, by all accounts, he’s personally close, the move helped Puig’s fantasy outlook immensely.
Most obviously, the path to playing time in Cincinnati is clearer than it was in LA, where Dave Roberts loved to utilize his myriad bench pieces. More influential, though, might be his change in home park. Moving from Dodger Stadium to the park derisively nicknamed Great American Small Park by disgruntled pitchers should do a world of wonders for Puig’s power numbers. Given the park change, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Fangraphs projects Puig to tie his career-high in home runs next year, forecasting a .275/.351/.500 line with 28 longballs and 15 steals.
For whatever reason, fantasy owners seem somewhat down on Yasiel Puig. He’s only entering his age-28 season. He’s coming off a better season than he’s had in years, and he’s now vacated a pitcher’s paradise for a bandbox. Yet he’s being drafted after Travis Shaw and Jurickson Profar. Owners’ reluctance to embrace Puig is rather surprising. It also leaves an opportunity to find high-end #2 outfield production in the middle rounds come draft season.
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