Handle Puig with care: Mattingly can’t do it all by himself
Don Mattingly has his hands full with Yasiel Puig. And it’s not going to get easier in the short term.
Puig entered spring training reportedly overweight and in less than ideal physical condition. Couple that with his multiple missed cutoff men from last year, his reckless style of base running already rearing its head and questionable off-the-field behavior less than one full year into his major-league career, and the Dodgers have a monster on their hands.
The 2014 championship season has only begun for two teams and Puig is already on his manager’s nerves.
Mattingly is clearly annoyed with Puig’s lack of physical toughness. After the second game in Sydney, Mattingly, in a way only he can, somehow mixed sarcasm and charm when commenting on his outfielder’s daily ailments.
“Shoulder yesterday, back today, so I’m not sure if they’re going to get him tests or get him to the MRI Monday or a bone scan on Tuesday, maybe," Mattingly said. "I’m not quite sure what we’ll do. We may not do anything. I’m not sure.”
Puig’s talent is undeniable. He might be the most electric, dynamic presence on the field; if he were a lesser player, the answer would be easy. Because he’s not, the question on everybody’s mind is how to handle Puig.
The answer, I believe, is psychological. This has become a larger power struggle that isn’t going to just go away.
It’s important that the Dodgers not take Puig’s behavior personally. Puig is the equivalent of an adolescent child; his behavior is his problem, not the team’s. Although it impacts everybody around him negatively, it’s not an attack on the organization; it’s simply where he is in his developmental cycle.
Puig’s behavior looks different from the young men I managed in the South Atlantic League in 2007. When a player of that experience level missed a cutoff man a few times, it was generally related to a misguided thought process. They believed that the best way to throw a runner out at the plate was to launch it with height, not grasping the implications that a runner might advance elsewhere if the throw wasn’t at the appropriate plane to be gloved and relayed by an infielder.
With Puig, his on-field behavior seems reminiscent of a rebellious, defiant teenager. He’s been told over and over and remains reckless. This doesn’t feel like a man without experience, it feels like a man without boundaries.
So how do you approach an adolescent?
From Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power:
“Power’s crucial foundation is the ability to master your emotions.”
Emotional leadership won’t work in guiding a child like Puig. The Bobby Knight approach, while effective with some, will not work in this case. All disciplinary action must be calculated and concise.
As a father, I give my sons the best advice and lead them most appropriately when I’m calm and under control. In turn, they are more receptive. Emotions cloud judgment, preventing a leader from seeing situations clearly. Puig is so self-involved at this stage in his life he doesn’t recognize the impact his behavior has on his teammates, his coaches and his organization. Adolescence distorts perception.
Surrounding Puig with good role models is of paramount importance. Those men must consistently follow the same rules set forth by the Dodgers for Puig. If reaching Puig in the short term is difficult, perhaps reaching Juan Uribe, Adrian Gonzalez and whomever else the young Cuban slugger might respect is easier.
Sitting down with those guys and making a big ask, such as “We need you guys to always be on point with your hustle, and off-the-field actions when Yasiel is around,” may be critical. If those veterans consistently adhere to the organizational boundaries and Puig sees this behavior, perhaps he follows suit. Everyone around him is going to have to step their character game up if he is to notice and feel compelled to do the same.
There is no easy fix. The Dodgers are forced to take a long-view approach.
Trust is the foundation for all effective leadership. When it comes to leading men, shortcuts are fool’s gold. Building trust requires care, connection, character and, perhaps most importantly, patience. The leaders in the Dodgers organization must establish this connection with Puig if he will be in their stable for the foreseeable future.
Proving to Puig that they care about not just his performance on the field but him as a human being will go a long way in establishing trust. As human beings, we are all more receptive to calm people who we are convinced care genuinely about our personal well-being.
Make no mistake; taming this monster can’t be accomplished by Mattingly alone. It’s going to take an organizational approach. The question isn’t “How should Mattingly handle Puig?” It’s “How should the Dodgers family handle Puig?”
The answer, of course, is that he needs to be treated like a son, as handling him like a misfit outsider will only perpetuate the problem.