PHOENIX — No more speeding tickets for driving 110 mph. Fewer air-mailed cutoff men and hair-on-fire base running. The luggage remains on the bus.
In Year 5, things have changed for Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig; he’s more under control. With his tools, it is hardly surprising that a career year has followed.
Puig the Predictable.
From the calmer demeanor to the home run power to the defensive excellence to the kiss that he plants on hitting coach Turner Ward in the dugout after every home run.
It has become a thing. It began last year, as Ward picks up the story.
“He would come into the (pregame batting) cage all grouchy or moody, and I would kind of grab him like I was going to tell him something and I would (aarrrrggh) get him,” Ward said about delivering his own smooch to Puig.
“It was more of me kind of lightening the mood. Now he is kind of lighting up social media.”
Puig, 26, is lighting up what counts, too.
He is slashing .255/.337/.470 with a 110 OPS-plus, and his 21 homers are a career high, two more than in this rookie season of 2013. His promotion in early June that season coincided with Hanley Ramirez’s return from the disabled list and helped propel the Dodgers to a 42-8 run and the NL West title.
Puig received a lot of the credit for that burst, but Ramirez and a rotation that included Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke probably deserved more.
Puig made his first All-Star team in 2014, but the success seemed to come too quickly. His play was sometimes overshadowed by his showy extracurriculars, on and off the field. Like the video of his arrest for speeding while wearing pink shorts. Or his spats with San Francisco Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner. Especially galling to teammates was his nonchalance, nowhere more noticeable than when Albert Pujols tagged up and went from first to second while Puig lolly-gagged.
Puig was returned to the minors at the trading deadline last season as reports surfaced that the Dodgers were entertaining offers for him, but this season he has become a valuable contributor. As one major-league talent evaluator noted, “humility with non-star performance and the stint in Triple-A helped. He knows that playing time is all about performance.”
Teammates have seen a change.
“He is more open this year,” said Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who has been with Puig all of his five seasons in the majors. “He is taking advantage of using Turner Ward. He built a relationship with him and built a great trust.
“He has turned himself around. All the stuff that happened in the past happened in the past. He wants to be a better guy, a better teammate, and he is doing it so far. It takes time. The thing is, ‘Doc’ (Dodgers manager Dave Roberts) is doing a great job helping him out. We are all talking to him. He is learning. He is getting older now, getting more mature. He is going the right direction. He’s figuring it out now. We know what kind of talent he has.
“He’s gifted, and he is using it right now to get where we need to get.”
Puig showed off his athleticism in right field when the Dodgers took two out of three games at Arizona earlier this week, extending to 46-8 a run that is at 47-9 entering the final game of a series against San Diego on Sunday. No team has had a better run since the 1912 New York Giants, who went 51-8 after a 3-3 start.
Puig leaped at the right field fence and got his glove over the barrier to take a game-tying home run away from J.D. Martinez in the sixth inning on Tuesday, and he beat a hard-hit line drive to the right field corner to hold Chris Iannetta to a single in the seventh. Puig’s tie-breaking single off Greinke capped a two-run seventh inning in a 3-2 victory on Wednesday.
“I said it last year, he’s a Gold Glove defender,” Roberts said. “That play (stolen homer) he made is evident, but there are many plays he makes that deter runners form advancing because of his arm strength. That makes him elite. He makes plays on balls coming in that really go unnoticed, Us watching him every single day … the things he does in right field just don’t happen.”
Defense always has been a strong suit. Puig has ”saved” 10 more runs than the average right fielder, according to baseball-refernce.com. He has four assists, down from a carer-high 15 in 2014 because teams know better.
Roberts has offered both praise and and comfort, helping to moderate any pressure Puig might feel on the other side of the ball by hitting him eighth in the lineup. Puig spent much of his first four seasons hitting higher in the order, often second, and at times he hit leadoff.
“In every game, regardless of where you hit, there are going to spots when you can impact the game, and he’s showing that hitting eighth. It can happen in the ‘3.’ It can happen in the ‘6,’” Roberts said.
“As far as pressure, it’s what you make of it. I do feel that having him down a little bit allows the game to come to him a little more. I think in that context, and also having him down there to potentially slug, makes our lineup more relentless and longer.”
Puig, in addition to his career high in homers, has a career-high 12 stolen bases in 15 attempts. He had 11 stolen bases in each of his first two seasons, but he turned that into a net negative by being caught 15 times in those two seasons. He has 55 RBIs, and is on pace to set a career high in that category, too. He had 69 in 2014.
The Dodgers have combined a major league-best team ERA and with the fifth-most runs in the league, and 21 homers from the No. 8 spot helps.
“He’s found a place in our lineup where he is adding a ton, and I think it is helping him just fit in and do it,” veteran Andre Ethier said. “I know a lot of managers might get overzealous and say he is doing well here, let’s try to insert him fifth, fourth, or third and plug him in there. Our lineup is so deep you really don’t have to do that, and he just extends the lineup that much longer. He’s being more than an impactful bat at the bottom end.
“I think he’s committed himself more to playing both sides. That’s all it takes to do it. It is not a skill thing. Not a talent thing. It’s just committing yourself. Obviously, he has talent through the roof that allows him to do it, but every player at this level has the ability to put their mind to do it and make decisions to play a certain way. He definitely is controlled.”