Yasiel Puig has been relatively consistent in Double-A ball, but his game is beginning to change lately. It's getting even better.
Puig belted two home runs and collected five RBIs in Chattanooga's 11-1 pounding of Pensacola on Monday.
The win was the seventh straight for the Lookouts, whose record stands at 23-27. Hitting coach Orv Franchuk attributed the team's recent success to better pitch selectivity.
"That's been our deal all year long -- we've been terrible about only swinging at pitches in the zone. We swing at pitches outside the zone a lot," he said. "We tell them, 'Just get on base for guy behind you.'"
During the winning streak, he said, "We're just starting to do things like making hard contact, trying to stay out air. We're getting good at-bats. The numbers in the box score do not always reflect the quality of the process, so we're focused on process, not results. The players are starting to buy into it. Tonight we had a lot of quality at-bats. We only had four fly balls. That shows you we're staying out of the air, and when we do, it's doubles and home runs."
He counts Puig, the Dodgers' top prospect, among those who are adopting a more process-oriented approach. In the first inning, he came to the plate with Rafael Ynoa and third-ranked Dodgers prospect Joc Pederson aboard. Puig got ahead of Pensacola starter Tim Crabbe, 2-0, and fouled off three pitches. He saw eight deliveries from Crabbe and launched the final one over the raised center-field wall of Chattanooga's AT&T Field. The ball ended up in almost the same spot after a five-pitch at-bat against the Blue Wahoos' Chris Manno in the fourth.
"Those balls were hit a long, long way," Franchuk said. "Those are legit home runs. When he's real good, he goes gap to gap. He doesn't pull. He stays in the middle of the field. That's where he's going to do well, and he understands that. As long as he doesn't get into yank mode, he's pretty selective for the most part. When he tries to do too much, he chases."
Trying to do too much is something Franchuk and Lookouts manager Jody Reed are working on eliminating from Puig's game. He's been responsive, but it's a difficult lesson to learn for a 22-year-old who signed a $42 million contract that included a $12 million signing bonus.
"It's kind of like with any young athlete. There's a lot of pressure on him. With the money, the signing bonus, I think he feels like he should be in the big leagues, and he really wants to be there," Franchuk said. "But he understands too, that he's got lots to learn. He's been pretty patient. He breaks a bat here and there. We talk about controlling his emotions. It's OK to get upset when you have a bad at-bat, but just think about what you're going to do next time and get where you want to be."
Last week, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told MLB.com that the team had discussed bringing up Puig and Pederson. If Puig is feeling any additional pressure, Franchuk hasn't picked up on it.
"It's been on the internet and it's been on TV and stuff, but we haven't noticed anything at all done here," he said. "The kids see all that stuff, of course, but in terms of the staff, from our perspective, it's been real quiet."
In fact, Puig has raised his batting average 12 points over his last 10 games, and he's tallied 14 RBIs in that stretch. The key? Not trying to do too much.
"His last couple weeks, I've kind of been on him about, 'Man, your at-bats with two strikes are so good because you tone it down a little bit. You get much more selective,'" Franchuk said. "He doesn't take these huge swings, and he doesn't lose anything from it. He thinks, 'I'm not going to have as much power,' but that's really not true. We were joking about seeing if the ump will just call two strikes on him right when he walks up."
Double-A pitchers also were able to jam Puig with inside pitches early in the season. He's gradually learned to lay off anything on the inner corner unless it's a situation in which he needs to protect the plate.
"They were pounding him in a lot. For a while there, he was rolling over and getting beaten in, and he wasn't too happy about it," explained Franchuk. "We said, 'Listen, that's not your pitch, not unless you have two strikes.' He knows that now, and he's been much better. But, you know, it's a process."
The biggest mystery about Puig's game so far is how he'll respond to a prolonged slump. Puig debuted with a torrid Spring Training, hitting .517 with an .828 slugging percentage over 27 games. Since arriving in the Southern League, he's only had one pair of back-to-back games without a hit, and he busted out of it with a three-hit, three-RBI game in which he doubled and stole two bases on May 5 at Birmingham.
"We're kind of waiting for him to see how handles failure, because he hasn't really had that yet for any kind of long period," Franchuk said.
As steady as Puig's been, both he and Franchuk remain focused on improvement.
"He's definitely getting better. There's so much to work with, tools wise. He's been great, but the mental part of the game is big, and it's a process," Franchuk said. "We're working on the baserunning and the defense, the total package stuff. I think he'll get there. We'll see."
Pederson singled, walked twice and scored once and Gorman Erickson hit two home runs and had four RBIs on Monday.