Dodgers manager Don Mattingly had talked to Puig, his coaches had talked to Puig and, in recent days, a number of the team’s veterans had talked to Puig.
Their message still was not getting through.
So, Mattingly yanked Puig at the start of the fifth inning of the Dodgers’ 4-0 win over the Chicago Cubs. And while Mattingly did not disclose the reason for Puig’s benching, it clearly was a disciplinary move.
A number of statistical analysts howled last week at the notion of benching Puig, noting that his various mistakes paled in importance to his overall contribution.
True enough — and beyond that, Puig, 22, still is adapting to a new country and new culture. He defected from Cuba only last year, and now he’s a burgeoning star in Los Angeles with a seven-year, $42 million contract.
Still, the idea here is very simple — to help Puig become the best player he can be.
And, yes, the Dodgers are going about it the right way.
Mattingly gained respect in his clubhouse by benching Puig, according to one Dodgers player. Puig also gained respect, the player said, by taking the advice of several veterans and accepting responsibility in his postgame remarks to the media.
“I wasn’t preparing well for each pitch (defensively),” Puig said through an interpreter. “It was a good decision.”
Puig’s readiness might not have been the only issue Wednesday. He also didn’t slide into second in the first inning to try and break up a double play. He made a couple of showy catches in the fourth inning. And he repeatedly was the last man to leave the bench at the start of defensive innings, one player said.
Nothing terrible, just as missing the occasional cutoff man or running into the occasional out is nothing terrible. But as Dodgers infielder Jerry Hairston Jr. told me last weekend, several veterans essentially told Puig, “Hey, that’s enough,” pointing out that such mistakes could prove decisive in important games down the stretch or in the playoffs.
Mattingly’s benching of Puig likely was a culmination of various missteps; the manager also had sat Puig last week in Miami. Puig was 0 for 11 at the time, and MLB.com reported that he had thrown a dugout tantrum after a called strike by home-plate umpire John Hirschbeck. Mattingly used him as a pinch-hitter later that night, and Puig hit a home run.
The Dodgers know, above all else, that Puig loves to play. Take that away from him, and perhaps he will snap to attention, displaying a greater sense of awareness and professionalism. He isn’t the first young player to receive such a punishment, and he won’t be the last.
The good news: The Dodgers like Puig. The players say that he is quite smart and that he understands the lessons they try to impart. But Puig, for whatever reasons, often repeats his mistakes when he gets on the field. And with some of his showmanship, he risks angering opposing clubs and prompting retaliation.
Mattingly, meeting with the FOX broadcasters last Saturday, said it has been “a little bit of a struggle” to get Puig to concentrate on fundamentals, then spoke of the delicate balance the team faces in trying to help Puig refine his game.
“He’s an energetic player with such passion,” Mattingly said. “Sometimes he goes out of control. But it’s never malicious. It’s never, ‘I’m missing the cutoff man because I want to.’
“I don’t want to break this kid’s spirit. I like him playing the way he plays. But like with anybody else, I just want him to play intelligently.”
That is what Wednesday’s benching was all about. And if Puig grows from the moment, it could prove to one of Mattingly’s best moves.