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The Staying Power of Yasiel Puig

Los Angeles’s bat- and bird-flipping outfielder is no longer considered a transcendent talent, but his value to the Dodgers — and to MLB as a whole — goes far beyond his production

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

There are 147 results on Etsy for “Yasiel Puig.” You can buy a sketch of him gazing enigmatically into the distance, a #PuigNotLate baseball cap, or a T-shirt proclaiming that “when the boogeyman goes to sleep, he checks the closet for Yasiel Puig.” On Facebook, the Dodgers outfielder’s page has 100,000-plus likes more than that of three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, and more than eight times as many likes as that of Justin Turner, who despite missing significant time to injury leads Los Angeles position players in 2017 WAR (2.4). Puig, at 0.6 WAR, is tied for eighth on the team in the same metric.

Puig, you might have heard, made some news earlier this week. In the second inning of the Dodgers’ 7–5 win over the Indians on Tuesday, he took pitcher Trevor Bauer deep; he then went so far as to give his less-than-cordial regards to a section of the Cleveland crowd, which just the night before had watched its basketball team lose in the NBA Finals for the second time in three years. If you had to slot any baseball player’s name into a URL that includes the phrases “pair of obscene gestures” and “after hitting a home run,” there are not many likelier candidates than Puig. Apparently, he’s not big on mercy. (Nor is MLB, which suspended him one game in response to the incident. He’s appealing the ruling.)

Squint the wrong way at everything that’s happened with Puig over the past few years, and his story as a major leaguer could look almost like a tragedy. As a rookie, he put up a .319/.391/.534 slash line, with his 44 hits in his first month in the bigs setting a franchise record and finishing second to only Joe DiMaggio for the most in a player’s debut month all time. Having come up at a similar time as Mike Trout, there was serious debate in 2013 and 2014 over which sensation would more effectively lay waste to the league in the seasons to come.

Here’s a sample headline from June 2013: “Yasiel Puig Phenomenon Is Igniting the Dodgers, City of Los Angeles.” Or there’s this, from the August 19, 2013, edition of the Los Angeles Times: “Puig is part car wreck, part new-age jet car breaking the sound barrier. He’s a walking spectacle. It’s hard to take your eyes off him.”

And then, well … Puig was fine. His numbers fell off in his sophomore campaign and have continued to decline ever since. He was emphatically not Mike Trout. By last summer, there was a real question over whether the Dodgers would bother to keep him around. They did, of course, and he, now in his fifth season in L.A., has responded with a modest .244/.315/.421 slash line to go with 10 home runs and 34 RBIs.

Yet the word “beloved” does not quite encompass the degree of enthusiasm baseball fans have for the 26-year-old Cuban, both among those who root for the Dodgers and those who do not. (I, as fussily — dare I say proudly? — reproachful of Dodger blue as any Bay Area native, can attest to the latter part of this.) For all of his struggles at the plate, his outsize persona has kept him squarely in the spotlight, and he undeniably remains one of the most recognizable figures in the game. The blueprint for reaching MLB superstardom and engendering pan-league fan worship seems to go something like this:

A. Be a child prodigy who is willing to punch opposing pitchers in the face

B. Be a 6-foot-7, 282-pound phenom who can obliterate baseballs 495 feet

C. Be Yasiel Puig

In May, ESPN published a list of the world’s 100 most famous athletes compiled using a formula that factored in endorsements, social media following, and internet search popularity. It’s not a perfect set of metrics, but it’s nonetheless telling that not a single baseball player was included. This spring, SB Nation’s Jon Bois wrote that Tim Tebow, 29 and bumbling mostly inexplicably around Low-A ball for the Mets, is by virtue of name recognition alone almost certainly this nation’s most famous ballplayer. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that he’s right. Mike Trout, transcendent talent that he is, hasn’t exactly become a household name. Bryce Harper, the “Chosen One” who vowed to make baseball fun again, is about as sedate as any self-described fun person has ever been. Aaron Judge is a delight as well as extremely large, and he’s inspired even the notoriously stuffy Yankees to ham things up. Still, he’s not quite reshaping fandom (yet).

Puig didn’t make ESPN’s list either, but it’s remarkable that he — who has barely been worth more than 1.0 wins above replacement level after 2014 — is generally considered in these conversations about the league’s biggest superstars. Long after people stopped comparing his production to Trout’s, they’re still comparing their popularity.

Part of this stems from Puig’s antics, as the outfielder who managed to inspire a bench-clearing brawl scarcely a week into his major league career has long been as famous for his charisma as for his team contributions. He calls himself a comedian and maintains a social media presence that, from heckling reporters and teasing quarterbacks to posting sorry-not-sorry notes for closer Kenley Jansen and sharing a meme of him vowing not to be a distraction, could best be described as surreal. Take his antics around this year’s NBA Finals, for instance. He was with the Cavs …

… but also with the Warriors:

The Dodgers, naturally, have not always been fans of Puig’s Puig-isms: His demotion to the minors last August reportedly happened at least in part due to ye olde Maturity Issues. And his suspension for bird-flipping is likely to prompt some internal discussions about him toning it all down and — in the words the outfielder used to describe his 2015 vow to scale back on his glorious, pitcher-taunting bat flips — “show American baseball that [he’s] not disrespecting the game.”

Part of Puig’s star power is also a byproduct of his backstory; his dramatic arrival from Cuba has been considered for feature-film treatment. And part of it is that he has a way of connecting with fans, who generally seem predisposed to accept him as a cult hero — why not, given the lengths he’ll go to in order to deliver a souvenir? When he casually tossed a ball into the stands and knocked out a fan’s tooth last September, it inspired the de-toothed fan to pose with a sign commemorating the occasion:

Puig has not become the Hall of Fame Talent Who Was Promised, and even in Los Angeles is routinely shown up these days by the likes of Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger and some guy named Chris Taylor. There’s been plenty of recent speculation about who qualifies as the face of baseball; even if Puig never returns to his 2013 form, he seems, improbably enough, to have everything he needs to top that list.