Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig plans to dial it down, at least a little, in 2014
PHOENIX — From the time he was called up to the major leagues last year, Yasiel Puig has viewed himself as an entertainer.
“The fans go to the stadium to enjoy themselves,” Puig said in Spanish. “After work, they spend their free time watching us play. We have to do our best to entertain them.”
Puig did that last season with a hair-raising style of play, electrifying crowds in becoming one of baseball’s top draws as a rookie.
However, Puig also acknowledges he has to be more restrained on the field, admitting he has to be smarter on the bases and learn when to hit the cutoff man rather than throw directly to the plate from right field.
With the Dodgers holding their first full-squad workout Friday, the 23-year-old Cuban outfielder and his coaches restarted the process of adding a degree of caution to his risk-taking mentality.
“To me, in order to be a bona fide superstar, you have to learn to slow the game down,” hitting coach Mark McGwire said.
Manager Don Mattingly is hopeful this camp will provide Puig with that opportunity.
“It gives us an extended period of time where there aren’t games on the line and we can continue to talk about different things,” Mattingly said.
The Dodgers couldn’t offer Puig that kind of instruction last year. He was new to the country, new to the Dodgers and determined to make his presence known to the world.
“He was just full speed,” Mattingly said. “He was all forward.”
With the Dodgers starting three former All-Stars in their outfield — Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford — Puig started the season with double-A Chattanooga.
Puig was promoted to the major leagues on June 3, when the Dodgers were in last place. They finished the season as division champions, with Puig’s exuberance often cited as one of the primary reasons for their turnaround. He played 104 regular-season games, hitting .319 with 19 home runs and 42 runs batted in.
Asked about his favorite memory of last season, Puig mentioned several, including the grand slam he hit in his fourth game and Juan Uribe’s two-run home run to win the National League division series against the Atlanta Braves.
Until last year, Puig had never sprayed teammates with champagne.
“In Cuba,” he said, “we used water.”
But not every memory was pleasant.
He seems bothered when talking about how opposing pitchers were offended by his home-run celebrations.
“We don’t always hit home runs,” Puig said. “When a moment like that comes and we enjoy it, we don’t intend to offend the pitcher. We’re expressing the emotions that are inside of us.”
“It’s hard for me to see a team get upset when a guy gets excited,” Mattingly said. “They do the same thing. Every team that you watch, a guy gets to second base and he has a special sign that he shoots to the dugout. They can’t get mad because they do the same thing. That part’s become so much more accepted.”
Puig also endured a late-season decline. He batted only .214 in September. Against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Championship Series, he hit .227.
Opposing pitchers frequently pounded him inside with fastballs and got him to chase outside breaking balls.
“We’re working on hitting the types of pitches I missed last year and in zones in which I feel a little uncomfortable,” Puig said.
The key for Puig is learning to distinguish between strikes he can hit and strikes he can’t, according to McGwire.
The NLCS also exposed Puig defensively; he committed two errors in Game 6, and a couple of his ill-advised throws resulted in Cardinals runs that contributed to the Dodgers’ elimination.
While Puig says he wants to cut down on his mistakes, he doesn’t intend to change his general approach toward the game. If he sees a chance to stretch a single into a double, he says, he will.
“If the outfielder moves slowly to the ball, I’m going to try to take another base,” he said. “The more bases we take, the more runs we can score.”
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