Puig's mental mistakes are no joke

Puig has done some great things in his first MLB season. But his mental mistakes may cost the Dodgers when it matters most.

Yasiel Puig has helped transform the Los Angeles Dodgers from last-place calamity to World Series favorite. He’s the biggest breakout star in baseball this year, a viable National League MVP candidate, a certifiable Hollywood attraction. Personally, I love to watch him play.

But if I were a Dodgers fan, I’d be nervous about Puig in October. He’s as likely to cost the Dodgers a playoff game with a needless mistake as he is to win one on a walk-off home run.

For a while, Puig’s frequent fundamental lapses were forgivable. Airmailed cutoff men and unnecessary outs on the basepaths were accepted as part of The Puig Show. Besides, he was saving the season. Let him be.

No more. Puig and Hanley Ramirez have turned the Dodgers into near-certain NL West champions. Now it’s time to prepare for the playoffs. And clearly, Puig isn’t ready. The Dodgers’ weekend series in Philadelphia was further evidence of that.

Saturday, Puig made the final out of an inning at third base when he tried to tag up on a fly ball to shallow center field. Sunday, he made a week’s worth of blunders in one inning: In the top of the sixth, he was picked off at first base. In the bottom, he allowed the trailing runner to reach scoring position because of an overaggressive throw to third base.

Even before Sunday’s loss to the Phillies, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly spoke publicly with reporters about the team’s frustrations with Puig. “These are the spring training stuff we talked about when you were asking why not bring him up,” Mattingly said, according to MLB.com. “You want them to know the scoreboard, know the outs, who’s coming up. These are mistakes you don’t want to see. But you take the good with the bad.”

Let’s make something clear: Mattingly and his coaching staff are trying to correct the issues with Puig. The problem – as my colleague Ken Rosenthal reported last week – is that Puig has ignored their appeals to hit cutoff men.

The Dodgers are in a precarious position here. Mattingly should bench Puig for a day – the clearest form of manager-player communication – to make certain he understands the need to be more aware of game circumstances. But that’s probably unrealistic because Puig helped the Dodgers go on an historic 42-8 run, and the paying customers in L.A. would be displeased if they bought a ticket to Dodger Stadium only to learn their hero wasn’t in the lineup.

Eventually, though, Puig must get the message – and the sooner, the better. When Starlin Castro was a rookie, the Chicago Cubs figured he’d eventually stop losing track of outs and forgetting about baserunners. He hasn’t. Perhaps the Cubs should have waited for Castro to master the game’s basics before handing him a $60 million contract extension. Puig signed a $42 million deal the day he became a Dodger, so Mattingly must come up with other forms of motivation.

I understand that Puig is 22. He defected from Cuba and had little seasoning in the minor leagues. But he’s making mistakes that wouldn’t be tolerated in Class A ball. College players with far less ability than Puig know not to risk making the last out of an inning at third base with the cleanup hitter due up, and that throws from right field should be low and within range of a cutoff man.

Among the elite foursome of young position players in baseball today – along with Manny Machado, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout – Puig is the oldest. He’s also the least fundamentally sound. In a peculiar way, Puig’s rawness has contributed to his entertainment value at times this year. But there’s nothing funny about a mental error in the World Series, which is where this Hollywood story is heading.

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