“It’s been a storybook,” manager Don Mattingly said. “It’s crazy.”
Puig is the talk of baseball, and understandably so. He tied a major league record for most RBI (10) in his first five career games, and he is only the second player since 1900 to hit four homers in his first five games.
“He’s just been amazing for us,” infielder Skip Schumaker said. “It feels like something’s going to happen every time he comes up.”
It usually does. The Dodgers had a 23-32 record before Puig was called up from Double-A Chattanooga on Monday but are 4-1 since. He brings an energy and enthusiasm they didn’t exhibit until his arrival.
“As long as the team is pulling together,” Puig said Friday night, “I’m happy to be a part of it.”
But this is just the beginning. Here are three questions still to be answered:
1. How will he adjust once pitchers figure him out?
Right now, Puig is still a raw specimen whose talent is doing most of the work. But hitting is like a chess match; pitchers will figure out his weak zones, and Puig will have to adjust.
Can he do it? Hitting coach Mark McGwire said Puig has a high baseball aptitude and a willingness to learn as he goes along.
“He’s very intelligent,” McGwire said, “and that’s a very, very huge plus for him. He’s thinking when he’s in the (batting) cage. He’s always trying to feel his swing and get the position he wants to get to. He pretty much understands what these guys are doing.”
Puig’s four home runs have come off a slider, changeup, fastball and curve, proving he can hit anything, and he’s gone to the opposite field twice. If a pitcher misses his spot and leaves the ball over the middle of the plate, he pounces.
“He’s going to have to make adjustments just like anybody else,” Mattingly said. “Some of those problems are that (pitchers) will have to go to a certain area to get him out, and most guys can’t get the ball there anyway. If you don’t get the ball in the right spot, a two or three-inch difference is big.”
Friday’s game was a good example. Braves starter Paul Maholm hung a curve that Puig drove over the fence in left in the sixth inning. “He makes you pay,” Mattingly said. “He makes you pay with power.”
2. Is he more likely to win a batting title or a home run title?
Because he’s only 22 and still learning the game, there’s no way to fully predict the kind of hitter Puig will be. But he clearly is able to drive the ball to all fields, and most of the game’s best hitters typically produce home runs without trying.
“The thing I’m impressed with is how he hits the ball on the line, and his home runs, when he gets the bat where he wants to get it, the ball is hit on a line, and you’re going to hit home runs by mistake,” McGwire said. “I wouldn’t say right now that he’s a home-run hitter. I would say he’s more a gap to gap, foul line to foul line (hitter). I would be shocked if he doesn’t hit well into the .300s.”
Said Mattingly: “It’s going to be a matter of adjustments. He hits the ball all over the field, and those kinds of guys are high-average guys. The fact he can run tells you that every ball he mis-hits that ends up in the hole has a really good chance of being a hit. Speed turns into average too. Maybe he’ll be more the guy that can do any of them in any season, or all of them.”
One drawback: Puig has difficulty resisting the first pitch and doesn’t draw enough walks, both of which are sure to affect his average. Of his first 19 at-bats, he swung at the first pitch 10 times.
3. Will he be able to handle Puigmania?
The Dodgers haven’t seen this kind of instant excitement since the arrival of Fernando Valenzuela in 1981. It’s still too early to know if Puig can sustain his hot streak and make a connection with LA’s Latino community, but he’s off to a good start.
“The only way he catches Fernandomania is if he stays here the rest of the season and continues to do what he’s doing,” said Dodgers coach Davey Lopez, a teammate of Valenzuela. “We won’t know until then.”
Puig appears to embrace the affection he’s getting at Dodger Stadium. He doesn’t need to be prompted to come out of the dugout for a curtain call, and every at-bat is a reason for fans to remain in their seats.
McGwire knows something about being a rookie sensation. In 1987, he hit 49 homers for the Oakland A’s, was voted American League Rookie of the Year and was generally considered the game’s next great slugger. He finished his career with 583 home runs.
“It’s a different era because obviously the media wasn’t such a big deal,” McGwire said. “My only worry is that the media gets so big that it takes him away from preparation (for the game). People want a story right away, but we’ve got some people here who will stop that in a heartbeat.”
In the meantime, there appears to be no stopping Puig. At least not now.