About four minutes after I leave home for a long trip, I start to worry that I’ve forgotten something. Maybe I’ve left the door unlocked, or forgotten to pack my laptop, or left my glasses on my nightstand; even if I’ve never actually done any of those things before, there’s a constant nagging fear that I’m without something essential, and I’ll be 1,000 miles from home before I realize it.
The 2020 MLB season must be furtively patting its pockets right now, because we’re just three and a half weeks from Opening Day and Yasiel Puig is still a free agent. It’s absurd that such a huge part of the baseball landscape remains unsigned, even if it’s been camouflaged by the weirdest offseason in a generation. All the more so because the kind of multimillion-dollar staring contest that became the norm in mid-2010s free agency all but disappeared this offseason; of the 45 players on my ranking of top free agents this winter, only Puig remains unemployed.
The history of baseball has always been an uneasy combination of homespun mythology and rigid empiricism; it’s a sport that proudly and routinely rounds numbers off to the one-thousandth, yet is propped up by decades-old anecdotes and legends that are just a little too good to survive fact-checking. But baseball would not be what it is if not for its exhaustive statistical record, or without the color provided by the characters who produced those records or the storytellers who were there to watch.
Sometimes the numbers are so good they create a legend all their own; such will likely be the legacy of this generation’s definitive star, Mike Trout, a joyful and captivating talent but also a studiously noncontroversial man, who might just be the greatest player the sport has ever seen. We don’t need folklore to understand Trout, just access to Baseball-Reference. The same, broadly speaking, goes for Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts, Albert Pujols, and most of the other greats of the 21st century.
Then there’s Puig, who is by no means a generational great but has left just as indelible of a stamp on the game in his short career as any of his contemporaries. During the interminable Jack Morris Hall of Fame debate, it was common for writers who covered Morris and supported his candidacy in the face of statistical evidence to say something along the lines of, “You had to be there to understand him.” Some players do truly transcend the numbers, but I remember a younger writer rebutting that line of criticism by saying that if people who didn’t see Morris couldn’t appreciate his ineffable greatness through the written record of his career, that represented a failure by the generation of journalists who were tasked with capturing the sport and committing it to history.
No contemporary ballplayer makes me feel that burden as acutely as Puig. Even if those of us who cover the game now are up to the task of communicating his unique style and impact, it would be nice to have, say, a young Roger Angell or Buck O’Neil around just to be safe.
Puig made his major league debut two years after Trout, in June 2013. As a rookie he hit .319/.391/.534, which would have been good enough to win NL Rookie of the Year honors in any season that did not also feature the debut of Marlins ace José Fernández. This was when the debuts of Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Fernández in rapid succession gave the mistaken impression that every team had some college-aged future Hall of Famer waiting in the wings, and Puig seemed like the next member of that club.
And yet, crucially, the numbers were never really important as such for Puig. Everything the 22-year-old Cuban did was noteworthy, tailor-made for a media landscape that was still coming to grips with GIFs and embedded video. Puig could hit the ball a mile and throw it two. He combined those skills with incredible speed, particularly for someone who looked like he could deadlift a locomotive and ran with a frenetic, scrambling gait. Back when mainstream American baseball culture was still coming to terms with the idea of men sometimes expressing their emotions, Puig laughed, smiled, shouted, and above all, flipped his bat.
Every detail that emerged about Puig made him seem more like a character from Major League or The Great American Novel. Puig’s journey from Cuba to Los Angeles featured harrowing run-ins with smugglers in Mexico. And not only did the Dodgers sign him to a $42 million contract, they did so even though scouting director Logan White had only ever seen Puig take batting practice.
The skill and polish in Puig’s game long went unnoticed—and I’d argue he’s still underrated as a defender and contact hitter—because of his proclivity for taking risks on both sides of the ball. He saw and tried to seize advantages most of his contemporaries and competitors were too constitutionally conservative to even consider. In a more fluid sport he’d have been revered as a master improviser or a creative wizard; instead, we had years of national baseball discourse on hitting the cutoff man.
Much of that criticism was overblown, the result of frustration at the Dodgers’ playoff failures before Kershaw emerged as a scapegoat, or the discomfort Puig caused to players, coaches, and pundits who simply weren’t comfortable with an Afro Cuban star who seemed to have little use for American baseball norms. (The most salacious stories about Puig as a clubhouse cancer revolve around his conflicts with Zack Greinke, who’s not exactly the easiest player to get along with himself.) No matter how many times Puig took dumb chances on the bases or bypassed a safe play for a Hail Mary heave across the diamond, he was never a net negative from a standpoint of on-field production.
The exhaustive empirical study of baseball has led to the highest level of play in the history of the sport, but it’s also made the game somewhat predictable. Puig could do something unexpected, for good or ill, at any moment. More than that, he was provocative. Nowadays, people who get called “provocative” are smug bad-faith trolls, but just by being himself and playing the game as he saw fit, Puig divided public opinion and forced American baseball culture to ask questions about—and ultimately change—its own values. As much fun as he’s been to watch, he’s even more fun to talk about.
But it’s easy to understand why the Dodgers found him frustrating, and amid a particularly turbulent and unproductive 2016 season, demoted Puig to Triple-A. Within a week of being sent to Oklahoma City, Puig caused headlines again by taking his teammates out partying after a loss and posting their exploits to Snapchat.
After returning to the majors, Puig reinvented himself. He was once the excitable and ungovernable youth, the kind of player who earned the nickname “The Wild Horse” and wore no. 66 because a Dodgers clubhouse manager called him a “little devil.” By the time the Dodgers reached the World Series in 2017, Puig had become one of the best defensive outfielders in the game and a key veteran figure on a young team.
And yet we still saw plenty of exuberant celebrations, from bat flips to tongue wags to big smooches on the face for hitting coach Turner Ward. Puig was still Puig, just a little older and more in control. The Dodgers traded Puig to the Reds in 2018 in a salary dump, and he’s bounced around from Cincinnati to Cleveland to free agency since then. Every so often he does something newsworthy, like the time Chris Archer threw behind Derek Dietrich and Puig tried to fight the entire Pirates 25-man roster by himself in response, but as he rounds out his 20s outside the bright lights of Los Angeles, those moments are fewer and farther between.
Puig was not backing down today in the Pirates-Reds altercation... pic.twitter.com/WQDfVnd9qg— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) April 7, 2019
Puig never reproduced the offensive promise he showed as rookie, and at this point in his career there’s an argument to be made that he shouldn’t be an everyday outfielder for a good team. That happens to everyone sooner or later, but he’s still a useful player for a team in need of someone to hit right-handed pitching (in keeping with the weirdness of Puig’s career, he posted massive reverse platoon splits in 2017 and 2018) and play solid defense in right field. More than that, we’re just one year removed from Puig being an above-average regular for the back-to-back National League champions. If contending clubs are going out of their way to trade for the likes of Nomar Mazara and Hunter Renfroe, someone ought to be interested in Puig, on more than a minor league deal or a one-year prove-it contract.
Frankly, we deserve to watch the continued maturation of one of the most interesting baseball figures of the 2010s. Perhaps Puig will evolve one day into a de facto player-coach, like a latter-day Jason Giambi, or even the kind of sage raconteur who could have captured his own career so tidily. That, like everything else Puig’s done, would be something to see. I just didn’t think it would be a possibility worth considering during spring training of Puig’s age-29 season, as he remains out of contract, waiting for the game he moved to feel his absence.