Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig (66), celebrates with teammates after Skip Schumaker scored the winning run on a wild pitch in the 10th inning Friday night against Atlanta. Puig was the National League player of the week in his first week after moving up from the Chattanooga Lookouts.
LOS ANGELES — The newest hot young thing in Los Angeles is a guy you can’t take your eyes off of. He’s well-built, with a winning smile and engaging personality. He doesn’t say a lot, preferring to let his performance speak for him.
He’s getting rave reviews and is a hit on the Internet. Hollywood isn’t after him yet, but if Yasiel Puig keeps this up, opportunities will surely come calling.
Fittingly, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ rookie plays for a team co-owned by Magic Johnson, a guy who knew a thing or two about showmanship and style during his NBA days.
The 22-year-old right fielder has shown plenty of both while creating a buzz that had been missing at Chavez Ravine so far this season. Puig was batting .464 with a .964 slugging percentage going into Monday night’s game against Arizona.
His first week in the majors was a memorable one, with 13 hits in 28 at-bats, four home runs and 10 RBIs in his first seven games since coming up from the minor leagues. He was named NL player of the week Monday.
Puig electrified the last-place Dodgers with a multi-homer game and a grand slam, and helped them to four wins in seven games, big for a club with a $215 million payroll that has greatly underperformed.
“As long as the team is pulling together, I’m happy to be a part of it,” he said in Spanish through a translator.
Manager Don Mattingly loves Puig’s personality and enthusiasm for the game, evident by the way he runs hard, whether it’s to take up his position in right field or charge around the bases.
“It’s just infectious the way he plays,” Mattingly said. “Seems like there’s a joy in his game. It’s the way you’re supposed to play. He just looks so fresh.”
Puig’s splashy debut and the ensuing excitement it’s created have drawn comparisons to Manny Ramirez’s arrival in Los Angeles in July 2008.
The following month, Ramirez hit .415 with 25 RBIs, nine home runs and 21 runs scored as a section of left field became “Mannywood.” He finished fourth in voting for the NL MVP award that season. Eventually, the good times ended when he was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs.
“I’d seen Manny play and knew what he could do,” said Mattingly, then a Dodgers coach. “But this cat is a different animal. The more you see it, the more you believe it.”
Puig’s talent and the lift he’s given to the injury-riddled Dodgers remind some of Angels star Mike Trout and Washington left fielder Bryce Harper, whose breakout seasons boosted their teams.
With center fielder Matt Kemp and left fielder Carl Crawford on the disabled list, the Dodgers called up Puig from Double-A Chattanooga on June 3. Mattingly put him in right field and had him batting leadoff.
Puig turned heads with an amazing throw in the ninth inning of his first game. He caught the ball near the wall and fired a line drive to first base that doubled off the startled runner to end the game with a double play in a 2-1 victory.
The next night, Puig hit two home runs in a 9-7 win. He came down to Earth last Wednesday with an 0 for 4 night that included two strikeouts. But he bounced back the following night with the grand slam, inducing Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, who’s seen plenty of remarkable feats, to proclaim, “I don’t believe it!”
Puig became just the third player since 1900 with three homers in his first four career games, according to information provided to the Dodgers by Elias Sports Bureau.
Oh yeah, he homered again last Friday.
Puig’s ability to speak English is limited, and Mattingly was asked how he communicates with the rookie during games.
“I don’t have to communicate, just kind of go,” Mattingly said, smiling and putting his hands together in a clapping gesture.
Puig’s exploits last week drew four curtain calls. Actor and fellow Cuban Andy Garcia came to check him out. The Dodgers rushed T-shirts and jerseys with his No. 66 into production and had them for sale late last week.
“I’m very happy because the fans are wearing my T-shirt and saying my name,” he said.
Even if some of his teammates aren’t quite sure how to pronounce it.
Count Skip Schumaker among them.
“There’s a different energy from the Cuban,” the second baseman said. “He’s just been amazing for us and it feels like something is going to happen every time he comes up.”
Puig’s five-tool skills have dazzled Dodgers fans, who cheer for his speed, power and strong throwing arm. His at-bats are must-see baseball, no matter what the score of the game. He’s a free swinger, whether he’s putting the ball in play, fouling it off or taking a strike.
“He’s up there with an intent to do damage,” Dodgers pitcher Ted Lilly said.
Each time Puig comes to the plate, he pauses on the edge of the grass and uses the tip of his bat to draw a cross in the dirt.
“Just giving thanks to God for all the good things he’s doing for me,” he said.
One week is too soon to tell whether Puig’s impact will be a lasting one.
“We’ll see how he does six or eight weeks into the season, see what kind of adjustments people make to him and he makes to them,” Atlanta pitcher Tim Hudson said.
Rookies often slump when they face pitchers a second and third time during the season.
Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke cautions, “It’s early so we’ll see how it keeps going. You don’t want to give someone too much credit too soon.”
The Dodgers gave Puig a lot of money even though only two of their scouts had even seen him.
The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder signed a $42 million, seven-year contract last June, a record for a Cuban defector. He received a $12 million signing bonus and is making $2 million this season.
Puig is the first Cuban to play for the Dodgers since pitcher Danys Baez in 2006 and the first position player since Zoilo Versalles in 1968.
He lives in Miami, where he bought a house for his parents and 17-year-old sister, all of whom attended his big-league debut last week.
Puig’s first week heroics may have taken fans by surprise, but the Dodgers knew what he was capable of. They saw his talent in spring training with the big-league club, although he was sent down to start the season, with the front office hoping he could learn the game and hone his hitting away from the spotlight.
Attention found Puig in April when he was arrested for driving 97 mph in a 50 mph zone in Chattanooga, Tenn. On the field, he was hitting .313 with eight homers and 37 RBIs in 40 games before getting called up.
Puig has seemingly adjusted well in the clubhouse, where his corner locker is located between fellow Spanish speakers Luis Cruz and Adrian Gonzalez, whose fatherly advice for the rookie was “just be yourself.”
“He’s an energetic guy, eager to get on the field, loves the game, always has a big smile on his face,” Gonzalez said. “This isn’t something he’s not prepared for.”
Taped above Puig’s locker is a photo of a Hanley Ramirez bobblehead with Puig’s face superimposed on it. Ramirez’s name has been crossed out and Puig’s written in.
As he goes out in Los Angeles to search for his beloved Mexican food, Puig is getting recognized and gladly signs autographs for all comers.
“I’m really happy that I’m living my dream,” he said.