Column: Puigmania breaks out in Los Angeles
Yasiel Puig probably won’t finish the season hitting .436, though by now there’s a growing number of people in Los Angeles who surely believe he can.
Hard to fault them, because Puig has turned a lot of people into believers in the month he has played baseball in the big leagues.
The buzz he’s generating at Dodger Stadium is reminiscent of what Fernandomania was like when Fernando Valenzuela took the mound more than three decades ago. The numbers he’s put up in his first month at the plate bring comparisons to the debut of Joe DiMaggio 77 years ago.
He’s a 22-year-old phenom who put a spark in the Dodgers when they were desperate for it most. He may have saved manager Don Mattingly’s job, and he may just save the season for the Dodgers.
History says it won’t last. Never does at this level, where pitchers and hitters continually engage in a cat-and-mouse game of adjustments and more adjustments.
But there’s not much doubt by now that the player called “wild horse” by Mattingly in spring training because of the way he attacks the game is something special. Fans make sure they’re back from the beer lines in time to watch him hit, and even a Puig strikeout has a certain air of excitement to it.
“He kind of reminds me of myself,” Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp said. “Sometimes he plays too hard, and sometimes you have to tell him: ‘Man, calm down. You can’t make every play.’ But he’s done an amazing job in his first month in the big leagues. He’s gotten big hits and made big plays on defense. He’s doing a lot, and I think we’re just feeding off the kid.”
A month ago the question was whether the Cuban could handle the lifestyle of a major league player. Now it’s whether one spectacular month in the bigs is enough for an invite to the All-Star game.
Already, a write-in campaign for Puig is underway online. Even if that falls short, it would be hard to imagine fellow players not voting Puig in as a backup or manager Bruce Bochy not using one of his selections on him.
His statistical sampling is small, yes, but it tells a big story. In just 101 official at bats he’s hitting .436 and his OPS of 1.180 is the best in the National league. His 44 hits since being called up on June 3 are a monthly rookie record for the Dodgers, and only DiMaggio (48, May 1936) had more in his first calendar month in the majors.
He looks a lot like Bo Jackson once did, though so far he’s connected with curve balls at a lot higher rate than Jackson ever did. His seven home runs have included shots down the left-field line and into the right-center bleachers.
He’s also figured out how to say the right things in postgame interviews, even if they’re translated from Spanish.
“I’m really excited to be part of that list,” Puig said after getting four hits Sunday in a win against Philadelphia, “but more excited that the team is winning.”
Indeed, the team is finally winning, much to the relief of Mattingly and the new owners who bankrolled more than $200 million in payroll this year. The Dodgers still haven’t reached .500, but after winning eight of their last nine are just four games out in the NL West.
Puig wasn’t supposed to be the player to get them there, even after impressing everyone in his first stint in spring training. He was sent to the minors for seasoning before things really got desperate at Chavez Ravine and he was called up to play right field.
He hasn’t been out of the lineup since, energizing his teammates not only with his bat but with daredevil base running that doesn’t always end well. After stealing two bases himself last week to set up the winning run in a game, Kemp was asked what the difference was in the Dodgers of early season and midseason.
“Puig,” he answered.
The Dodgers took a big chance on Puig, who was viewed as a raw talent when he was signed for $42 million over seven years in a gamble only a deep-pocketed team can afford. The contract now looks like a bargain on a team loaded with big contracts, including one with Andre Ethier, who used to occupy right field at Dodger Stadium and could be the odd man out in the outfield once Carl Crawford returns from injury.
For all Puig is doing on the field for the Dodgers, his impact on the franchise might be greater than his ability to hit or run the bases. Before he was called up the Dodgers were struggling mightily, and Dodger Stadium was littered with empty seats.
Now, fans who are notorious for leaving early to beat the traffic are staying to the end of games just to get another chance to see Puig hit.
The .436 average isn’t likely to last the summer. But early indications are Puigmania could be in for a long run in LA.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg