Over the weekend, Don Mattingly commented that he was considering using Yasiel Puig as a leadoff hitter during the upcoming 2014 Los Angeles Dodgers season. This seems to be a totally reasonable option, and not just because it allows Mattingly to use the balanced righty/lefty lineup he prefers. Puig was an on-base machine last season, and it seemed that he even became a more patient hitter as the season wore on.
During his somewhat abbreviated 104 game stint in the majors, Puig was able to slash .319/.391/.534 in 432 plate appearances. The on-base percentage, .391, is the important number here, as it is the goal of the leadoff hitter to get on base at a high rate while also displaying patience at the plate. While the latter was not exactly a strong suit of Puig’s throughout the 2013 season, he did show improvement as the season came toward its conclusion, and made adjustments to the way pitchers were approaching him.
What the numbers do not show is that Puig’s aggressiveness may wreak havoc on opposing pitchers and defenses. Puig has shown a willingness to try for extra bases and has been fairly successful in doing so. These sort of plays put a great deal of pressure on defensive players, who then become more prone to mental mistakes in the field. He also has great speed, a trait that is usually so desired in leadoff hitters that their ability to get on-base is somewhat ignored, which in the case of the Dodgers, was the main reason why Dee Gordon has had his fair share of leadoff at-bats during his time in the majors. Puig's base-stealing is still in need of work, as he was only 11 for 18 in stolen base attempts.
If Puig were to leadoff, it would ostensibly displace Carl Crawford to the second position in the order. During Spring Training of 2013, Crawford made it very clear that he felt much more comfortable hitting second as opposed to first, and in fairness to him, he did a reasonable job hitting in the leadoff spot and did not complain when asked to do so. Crawford, however, is not the dynamic player he once was when he was with the Tampa Bay Rays, and he also dealt with hamstring issues that may have impacted his base running ability. A return to the second spot in the order, despite his lack of success there last year, seems like it would benefit Crawford as well.
There is another added benefit to this move if Mattingly elects to go forward with it. In order to preserve the righty/lefty order, Hanley Ramirez would replace Adrian Gonzalez in the three-hole, which would give Ramirez more first-inning at-bats and would give Gonzalez more opportunities to hit with runners in scoring position, a scenario in which he has thrived. It would also keep Gonzalez, who is famously slow-footed, from clogging the base paths in front of the speedier Ramirez, though it may again become an issue when Matt Kemp returns.
Puig performed exceptionally well in the leadoff position in limited duty, hitting .333 and compiling a .409 on-base percentage to go along with a massive .618 slugging percentage. At 28 games, the sample size is small, but Puig showed enough ability with his bat and his legs to warrant this opportunity. From top-to-bottom, this Dodgers lineup has the potential to be a very special and explosive one should everyone be able to stay healthy.
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