What’s wrong with Yasiel Puig’s swing?

It seems like forever ago now, but earlier — in this very season! — Yasiel Puig was probably the hottest hitter in baseball. A blistering month of May lifted his OPS into four-digit territory, and articles like, say, this one were getting written:

We’re talking about a guy who, through this point in his career, has been a better hitter than almost all of the greatest hitters of all-time. And he seems to be getting better. The story of Puig’€™s rookie year focused heavily on the parts of his game that reminded everyone of Manny Ramirez. Perhaps we shouldn’€™t miss out on the fact that he’€™s hitting like an in-his-prime Manny Ramirez as well.

Nothing about that block quote was wrong. Nothing about that article was wrong. Puig was an absolute terror, and he was showing signs of getting even better. Earlier — in this very season! — Puig looked like one of the very most valuable players. But the minute you try to predict baseball, it shapeshifts into something unrecognizable and mean, and now articles like, say, this one are getting written:

OK, enough. Enough waiting for the Golden Boy to become an overnight sensation or last year’s overnight sensation to get going again. […]

It’s time to start Andre Ethier in center again.

You probably don’t need to get caught up, but I’ll catch you up. Puig at the end of July: .958 OPS. Puig since the start of August: .523 OPS. That .523 OPS comes with zero homers and three doubles, each of them separated by more than a week. Puig drove in a run the other day. It was the first time he’d done that since August 15. There are luck-slumps and there are performance-slumps, and right now, Yasiel Puig is stuck in a performance-slump that everyone’s noticed.

What I don’t have here is a solution. I don’t know how to fix Yasiel Puig. I just have more information that says, hey, this guy’s not doing so good. And on the way to that, I want to point out a little change in Puig’s approach between 2013 and 2014. As a rookie, Puig made a name for himself covering the whole plate and demonstrating an ability to go the other way. As a sophomore, Puig has focused a little more on the inner half, and he’s concentrated more on hitting the ball hard to left and center. A year ago, Puig hit four homers on pitches over the inner half, and he hit 15 homers on pitches over the outer half. This year, he’s at eight and five, respectively. Overall extra-base hits reveal a similar pattern.

And here’s a table of Puig’s productivity by area, measured by wRC+. That stat is a measure of offense compared to the league average, where 100 is average and higher than that is better than that.

Direction 2013 2014
Pull 253 205
Center 192 223
Opposite 210 66

As a rookie, Puig was amazing everywhere, when he put the ball in play. This year, he’s been amazing again overall to left, left-center, and center, but he’s dropped off to right field. Puig can still hit the ball the other way, but he’s had considerably less success, and this seems to indicate a change on Puig’s part.

So now we can move forward. Puig used to look to hit the ball to the big part of the field. Now he wants to pull the ball a little more. It was working for him, and exceedingly well, but something has gone awry. Something, it seems, is off with Puig’s swing or his timing, such that he doesn’t have the swing he had earlier this year or the swing he had through last year. We’re going to arbitrarily draw a dividing line between July and August. This is so we can compare Bad Puig to Good Puig.

Through the end of July, against inside pitches, Puig hit 53 percent grounders. These were pitches Puig was looking to hit hard. Ever since August started, against those same pitches, Puig has hit 78 percent grounders. That rate is almost impossibly high, indicating that Puig hasn’t properly been able to get around on pitches in.

And we can look at something else. Through the end of July, against fastball varieties, Puig hit 53 percent grounders. Ever since August started, against those same fastball varieties, Puig has hit 74 percent grounders. Again, there seems to be something off with the mechanics, with Puig rolling over on pitches he’d grown accustomed to driving.

Let’s look at a few image examples. Here’s Puig driving an inside fastball, from earlier in the year (click here if you can’t see the GIF below):

Here, Puig hits an average grounder on basically the same fastball, from not long ago (click here if you can’t see the GIF below):

Doing it again, a well-struck inside fastball, from earlier (click here if you can’t see the GIF below):

And something terrible, from not long ago (click here if you can’t see the GIF below):

Puig hasn’t been able to punish fastballs. That works as an indicator of a bigger problem. Already this year, he partially abandoned power to the other field, aiming more middle-in, and now he’s having trouble with fastballs and pitches middle-in. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. From Brooks Baseball, we see that Puig’s seen a ton of fastballs in September:

The other day against the Padres, Puig saw nothing but fastballs and cutters. He did line out hard, against the first cutter, but he subsequently struck out twice and flied out. There’s a book on the current version of Yasiel Puig, and while a good scouting book is constantly updating to mention player adjustments, Puig’s still trying to adjust his way out of this. Pitchers will change what they’re doing when Puig makes them do it.

So what’s actually the matter here? That’s the true mystery. It was reported in June that Puig was playing through hip discomfort, and one notes that, in June, Puig didn’t go deep even once. The problem with that theory is, in July, Puig batted .351 with 17 extra-base hits. So there was poor performance with a hip thing, then great performance, then poor performance again some time later. We can’t draw an easy connection.

Perhaps the hip injury was aggravated at some point. Perhaps Puig is playing through something else. Perhaps, as Don Mattingly has suggested, he’s grown fatigued with the incredibly long schedule. Perhaps there was something minor wrong, one of those ordinary issues, and then Puig allowed it to snowball by growing frustrated with himself. We don’t know what role Puig’s competitiveness is going to play in his getting out of this, because maybe he’ll work hard and maybe he’ll work too hard. Puig’s emotions could work to his benefit or detriment.

What’s obvious: the swing mechanics aren’t there. The timing hasn’t been there for a month and a half. Now, the last time Puig was bad, he followed that up with an awesome July. That’s the reason to believe in him — that reason, and the talent reason. We know that Puig’s too good to keep being so bad. But if he’s hurt, I don’t know a fast solution. And if he’s messed up, I don’t know a fast solution. The Dodgers have to keep hoping they can find themselves a fast solution. The playoffs will be upon them in no time, and they’d sure like to have Yasiel Puig in the lineup.