Mike Napoli did not play a single big league game in 2018 and then retired. Adrian Beltre just retired, too, but logged one final season worth of 98 OPS+ ball in 2018 before hanging up his cleats for good. Scooter Gennett, meanwhile, posted his second consecutive monster season for the Cincinnati Reds after being waived by the Milwaukee Brewers following his 2016 campaign.
That’s an odd trio to hype at the beginning of an article about new Red Yasiel Puig - one waiver claim, one player who didn’t even play in 2018, and a pair who’ve seen their careers end - but they’re listed for a reason. Each of Napoli (63), Beltre (64), and Gennett (64) have hit more dingers since the start of the 2016 season than Yasiel Puig, whose 62 dingers in that three-season sample rank tied for just the 75th most in all baseball in that time. For a player whose prodigious power and world-class bat flips are his calling cards, that’s a bit of an odd revelation, and while his most recent two seasons have seen a much more significant rate of dingeration - his 51 homers in that time rank tied for 36th in all MLB with the likes of Eddie Rosario and Yonder Alonso - that’s still not a mark that seems anywhere close to being in-line with his power reputation.
There are a pile of reasons why his tallies and power reputation haven’t yet lined up, of course, and there are several specific ones that make his move to Cincinnati the potential catalyst for such normalization. It’s that, I think, that makes his acquisition that much of an exciting one.
First and foremost, his move from the pitcher-friendly confines of the NL West to a home park in Cincinnati that consistently ranks among the most homer-happy in the game will serve as a boost. Dodger Stadium has consistently ranked from the middle to bottom of the league in home run park factors while GABP is almost always in the top tier, and that new 81 game home slate should be a contributing factor in Puig’s chase to top his career-best of 28 homers in a single season.
If his 2018 home/road splits are any indication, an escape from Dodger Stadium altogether might help unleash Puig on a whole different scale. He slugged an imposing .605 as part of an overall .292/.359/.605 output in 217 away PA last year, with 17 of his 23 homers coming away from Dodger Stadium. At home, for reference, he hit just .243/.295/.390 in 227 PA last year, though his career home/road splits do appear to be much more normalized. If anything, that historic consistency might be a positive for his downside potential while GABP’s homer-prone tendencies give him an increased upside for home production.
Perhaps the single most intriguing part about Puig’s batting profile has nothing to do with his quantity of production, but rather against which kinds of pitchers he does the most damage. Puig is one of the rare right-handed hitters who actually performs distinctly better against right-handed pitching, which (in theory) is good because there are many more pitches thrown by righties than lefties during a season of play. For his career, he owns an .859 OPS against RHP as opposed to just a .757 OPS against LHP, a gap that widened to .921 vs. just .628 during the 2018 season. In fact, his right-on-right damage over the last two seasons has been among the absolute best in all of baseball, his 142 wRC+ as a righty against RHP ranking as the 6th best out of 218 big league righties with at least 200 PA against RHP in that time. That Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, JD Martinez, and Jose Altuve are among the only names that have hit better than him in that area serves as a pretty good testament to his quality in that arena.
(For reference, Reds hitters have largely struggled in right-on-right scenarios over the last two seasons, their 81 wRC+ in that time ranked 25th in baseball.)
For Puig and the Reds, a move to a more hitter-friendly home park (and division) should certainly help his season-long stats, but what might be more important to fueling an increase in those numbers is simply maximizing Puig’s playing time, something that hasn’t happened hardly at all in his career. Hamstring issues have dogged him repeatedly, and that coupled with a stacked Dodgers roster that emphasizes thorough lineup rotation have combined to keep his number of plate appearances suppressed. Only once has he topped 570 PA in a season (640 back in 2015), and he has averaged just 423 PA a season over the last four years. For reference, that’s a full 200 PA fewer than Joey Votto logged in 2018 alone (in a year where he spent time on the DL), and Adam Duvall - who has already become an afterthought from the 2018 season - logged 370 PA with the Reds alone before being dealt to Atlanta. In other words, Puig has joined a Reds roster with precious little experience around him, and if he can manage to stay largely healthy, there might well be a path to the most playing time he’s seen in his half-dozen year career, too.
Quality against the most prevalent form of pitching in the game, a move to a home park that’s conducive to letting his biggest tool flourish, and a path to more playing time than he’s been used to for years all seem to be the recipe for Yasiel Puig thriving in a revamped Cincinnati Reds offense. And if he proves capable of playing even a bit of CF, that could provide the Reds with precisely the kind of offensive bludgeon that can help them claw out of the cellar of the NL Central. They’ve only got one year of team control over Puig to see it happen, but they certainly seem to be in prime position for that one year to be a brilliant one.