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Yasiel Puig’s worrying groundball trend

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The Indians need Yasiel Puig to pick it up — literally — to pull off a playoff miracle

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

On December 13, 2018, Indians fans were upset at the trade of a muscular Cuban who hit the ball hard, but too often on the ground.

On July 31, 2019, Indians fans were elated over the trade for a muscular Cuban who hits the ball hard, but during his time in Cleveland, too often on the ground.

Yasiel Puig’s 2019 season has easily been the worst of his career, sporting a sub-league average wRC+ (94) for this first time over a full campaign. His batted-ball profile is trending closer towards what is encouraged in 2019: a career-high 41.0% flyball-rate, and decimals away from career-high LD% (21.4% on Sep. 9 compared to 21.3% in 2018) and HardHit% (39.1% to 38.4%).

The 28-year-old pending free agent had something close to a renaissance last season with the best batted-ball profile of his career, but as it has gotten better in 2019, his results have suffered greatly, save for a 20-game run in June and July. Both years, his xwOBA and wOBA have practically mirrored itself.

So what gives?

It could be related to a 2% increase and decrease in his K% and BB%, respectively, but neither is enough of a move to cause an extreme lack of results.

Most notably, Puig’s GB% is well below his previous career-low, 37.6% compared to to 42.6% a year ago. His 14.5-degree average launch angle is also closest to optimal in his career. Both of those numbers look better when you completely forget his time in Cleveland.

Yasiel Puig’s rolling wOBA, Swing% and GB%. Trade to Cleveland is marked in green.
FanGraphs

Prior to the trade from the Reds to the Indians, the Wild Horse sported a 35% GB rate and a 16-degree launch angle over 404 plate appearances. As his GB% dropped, his wOBA increased, then vice versa, as we would expect in this fickle game.

In 128 PAs since coming up north, he is grounding out at an alarming 45.4% clip, with a launch angle of eight degrees. Even during his abysmal 45-game stretch to start the season, Puig’s groundball rate remained at 36.4%, with a 16-degree launch angle.

The trend, as you can note by the graph above, began at the peak of Puig’s success around late June. Since about Game 80, or June 29, his wOBA and GB% have more-or-less been trending in the complete opposite direction.

Since the start of the 2016 season, Puig’s GB% has progressively dropped, and prior to 2019, his wOBA and HardHit% rose almost proportionately. Peaks and valleys happen often, especially in such small samples within a season, but Puig has rarely grounded out so often since the tail end of 2017.

Puig’s 20-game rolling GB% and wRC+ over the four years he has trended upwards.
FanGraphs

The bad news is that Puig has been grounding out above his four-year average for the majority of his time with the Indians. The good news is that the long-term trend indicates it will not last for long, and that Puig had been grounding out at the lowest rate of that four-year stretch for most of the year.

As Puig has approached free agency, his success has largely been tied closely to that ground ball rate, and the subsequent, equal-and-opposite reaction in other metrics.

The Indians went after Puig to plug their hole in the outfield, and that hole has only grown in the time since his arrival, even without considering his personal struggles. They will need him to reverse this harsh, downward turn if they want to reach October, and have any success there.

Puig very well may reverse the groundball spike, as he has quickly and consistently over the last four years. His expiring contract may be the kicker, however. Players in their contract years have been prone to pressing, and if Puig is at that point, things might continue to get worse before they get better.