By Cliff Corcoran
Yasiel Puig is having fun again. Bat-flipping, tongue-wagging, shot-calling, coach-kissing, bat-licking, hot-dogging, team-leading fun. And, in large part because of Puig, the Dodgers are three wins away from winning their first pennant since 1988, remaining undefeated this October via a 5-2 win over the Cubs in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Saturday night.
Puig has been the Dodgers' leading hitter this postseason, reaching base at least twice in all four of their games while going 7-for-15 with two doubles, a triple, a home run and a pair of walks for a .467/.529/.933 slash line and a whopping 1.462 OPS. On Saturday night, he came to the plate with men on first and second and one out in the bottom of the fifth and pointed to the left-field gap. He then hit a 2-1 fastball from Cubs starter Jose Quintana off the base of the outfield wall in exactly that direction to drive in the first Dodgers run of the night, flipping his bat high toward the Dodger dugout in his follow-through. In his next at-bat, he hit his first home run of the postseason, taking Cubs lefty Mike Montgomery deep to lead off the seventh inning, pausing at the plate to admire the shot, which just barely cleared the same part of the wall, then taking a tongue-wagging curtain call after returning to the dugout.
In 2013, when Puig was a rookie taking the Major Leagues by storm, many in the baseball establishment rended their garments over the manner in which this 22-year-old Cuban kid was "disrespecting" the game with his antics. Four years later, the reaction to Puig's hot-dogging is far more muted. Perhaps that's because it's familiar -- just Puig being Puig, you might say. Perhaps it's because, after two years of struggle and doubt, there's a sense that Puig has been humbled and finally paid his dues after playing just 63 Minor League games between signing a $42 million contract with the Dodgers in late June 2012 and making his MLB debut less than a year later. The real reason, I suspect, is because even the old school folks missed it.
Puig hit .436/.467/.713 in his first month in the Majors, and it seemed as though he did something unbelievable every day, with his bat, with his arm in right field or with the crazy, often reckless chances he took on the bases. Puig was, along with Adrian Beltre and Bartolo Colon, one of the game's most GIF-able players, but he was also one of its best, a 22-year-old wunderkind who seemed to arrive from his native Cuba as a fully formed superstar.
Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully, then in his 64th season calling Dodger games, was instantly taken with the star, dubbing him the Wild Horse. Normally dispassionate analysts were upset that Puig wasn't included on the All-Star team a mere month after his debut. Only the comparable brilliance of his countryman, Jose Fernandez, kept him from that year's NL Rookie of the Year Award. His hot hitting and wild play carried through the postseason -- most famously when he admired a shot against the Cardinals in the NLCS that didn't actually go over the fence but still managed to leg out a triple -- and into 2014, when he did make the All-Star team.
As entertaining as Puig was on the field, however, he was a headache off it. He was repeatedly late for games or a no-show for workouts, twice arrested for reckless driving and investigated by MLB over a bar fight in Miami, making life needlessly difficult for his coaches, his first manager, Don Mattingly, and his teammates.
Then, in early 2015, Puig suffered hamstring problems that cost him 72 games over the course of the season. He wasn't the same player in between disabled-list stays, nor, after a hot 10-game start, was he the following season prior to suffering another hamstring injury in June. As the 2016 non-waiver Trade Deadline approached, the Dodgers explored dealing him, ultimately acquiring another right fielder in Josh Reddick and shipping Puig to Triple-A.
Puig returned from that exile to hit .281/.338/.561 last September. In December, he started the Wild Horse Children's Foundation to give back to the community. This year, he has largely kept himself out of the headlines and started doing interviews in English (many veteran and retired Latin players stress the importance of learning and using the language in the clubhouse and with the media). In large part thanks to that maturity, two healthy legs and daily cage work with hitting coach Turner Ward, who joined the Dodgers in 2016 after three years with the D-backs, Puig has reestablished himself as not only the Dodgers' everyday right fielder, but one of their better all-around players.
Puig's performance in these first few postseason games is the culmination of a season of growth. He was hitting just .229/.299/.408 on May 30, but from June 1 through the end of the season, he hit .281/.371/.531 with 19 home runs in 369 plate appearances. On the season as a whole, he has set career highs in games played (152), home runs (28), RBIs (74) and stolen bases (15). His strikeout rate this season was a career low 17.5 percent, his walk and contact rates were career highs (11.2 percent and 75.1 percent, respectively). He has also played the best right field of his career, an evaluation the advanced metrics all support.
He has also rediscovered his joy for playing the game. In a special piece for MLB.com in April, Puig wrote about his desire to rededicate himself to the game, to be focused, disciplined, prepared, healthy and "keep getting better as a person on and off the field." To Puig, there was, and is, no conflict between those goals and his desire to "be that caballo again." To be the Wild Horse, to play the game with flair, "have fun" and "show [his] joy on the field."
He has succeeded on all fronts. The result has been bat flips on singles and doubles, tongue-wagging triples, post-home-run kisses for Ward, post-game interviews in which its clear he remembers that 2013 triple against the Cardinals as a home run, world-class tweets, deafening "Puig" chants at Dodger Stadium, and a 1-0 Dodgers lead in the NLCS.
Welcome back, Wild Horse, we missed you.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.