A scout's take on game's big mystery: how to get Yasiel Puig out
Diamondbacks starter Ian Kennedy had at least one good idea last Tuesday night against the Dodgers, and it didn't come in the seventh inning, when he hit opposing starter Zach Greinke in the head, inciting one of the more impassioned on-field melees in recent memory.
No, Kennedy's good idea came an inning earlier, against the sensational Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig. With his fourth pitch to the 22-year-old Cuban, Kennedy unleashed a 92 mph fastball high and on the inside half of the plate -- far too high and far too inside, as it turned out, as it clipped Puig's nose. This beaning, unlike the one to Greinke, didn't seem to be intentional. Rather, it came as the result of good strategy -- perhaps the only strategy, according to one pro scout who spoke to SI.com, by which a pitcher might get Puig out with any regularity.
"You've got to go in on him, go in on those hands because big strong guys want to get their arms away from them," says the scout, who was granted anonymity by SI.com so that he could speak freely. "That's where you have to start. He's got to prove to me he can handle that ball. He kind of leans over the plate, maybe you can straighten him up a bit."
In the 10 games that Puig has played since making his major league debut on June 3, he has hit .486, with four home runs and 10 RBIs -- nine of which came in two games, on June 4 and 6. Pitchers have learned the hard way that they cannot approach Puig the same way they might most young, aggressive hitters. They cannot hope for him to weakly flail away at pitches thrown outside of the strike zone. While he has swung at 40% of balls, a high rate, he has made contact with 72.7% of them.
They cannot feed him junk, either, under the assumption that he is up there looking to crush fastballs. Each of his four home runs has come on a different type of pitch: an 85 mph changeup, a 94 mph fastball, a 91 mph slider and a 72 mph curveball.
And they cannot simply stay away from him by throwing the ball to the plate's outer third, because that is what he loves best. Of his 18 hits, 10 have gone to the opposite field (Puig bats righthanded), including two of his homers, among them the grand slam he hit off Braves reliever Cory Gearrin on June 6.
What Kennedy seems to have been trying to do last Tuesday was something that most of his predecessors had not. Just five of Puig's 17 hits have come on pitches delivered to the inner third of the plate, and not one, by my estimation, came on a pitch that was both inside and high. Of course, pitchers have tried to attack him there, and he has often demonstrated the precocious wherewithal to lay off, or foul off, those pitches until he gets the one he wants, which tends to be in the outside part of the zone.
"It seems like he can fight the ball off and get a mistake, and then he's going to get the bat head out there and crush it," says the scout. "That's the sign of a good hitter, to me, guys who can let the ball get deep, see it a little longer, and still hit it hard the other way."
But the scout still advises that pitchers commit to trying to do what Kennedy did in his first two encounters with Puig. In the second inning, he induced Puig to ground out on a first-pitch 92 mph fastball that painted the inside border of the plate. Then, in the fourth, he struck him out on five pitches, four of which were 91 to 93 mph and up and in; the other was a changeup in the dirt.
"It's a big chess game right now," says the scout of his colleagues' attempts to discover a weakness in Puig, who seems to posses Kasparovian gifts. "But I think he's going to adjust to [pitchers], because he seems intelligent, and his physical skills are so unbelievable. I think he might just be a natural. I don't see why he can't be a .300 hitter, with big time power, right away."
A .300 hitter might not seem like much, compared with .486, until you realize that there are currently just 29 of them in the big leagues, and five of those have hit the same number of homers or fewer than Puig has in a week and a half. All of this is to say that the Dodgers have found themselves a star, and there is a good chance he will continue to hit like one even as he becomes less of a mystery to major league pitchers.