The Face of MLB: Yasiel Puig

Yasiel Puig HeadlineGabe Kapler is a former Major League Baseball player of 13 years. Gabe joined an exclusive club, as one of the nine players who were on the field when the Red Sox won their first title in 86 years in 2004. You can keep up with Gabe Kapler on Twitter by following him @gabekapler.

On July 18th, I was in the car consuming a Buster Olney discussion with Jason Stark about the face of MLB and why we don’t have one. Jayson was breaking down among other things, why baseball doesn’t have it’s own version of Lebron James. His take after thinking it through for many months, was that baseball is a sport that fails to celebrate individuals enough, at least from a marketing perspective. Jayson cited discussions with players that confirmed his viewpoint that the game comes first and that it’s a team above all else sport. He also spotlighted MLB’s lag in failing to promote young stars like Mike Trout, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Jayson pointed to a story told by Charlie Manuel through Jayson Werth themed with the message, “Keep your helmet on”.

In my own career, I literally fought back smiles after a big double and stuffed anger down after a strikeout with the bases loaded. The voice of my college coach rang in my ears, “Act like you’ve been there before.” he told us. This behavior stripped me of personality on the baseball field but enabled me to appear professional, in chorus with Charlie’s sentiment. If I could do it all over again, I’d maintain my humility but release a bit more joy. I always experienced envy when watching other players authentically express pleasure during competition.

Basketball, in part, is so successful internationally because individuals worldwide have played and can comprehend the size, strength and skill of players in the NBA. It’s an inexpensive sport to learn and it’s playground feel is undeniable. Baseball is complicated, nuanced and intricate. It’s difficult to find a pick up version of the sport that feels authentic, no disrespect to you stick-ball playing New Yorkers.

To become the face of basketball, it helps to be a star prior to entering the NBA. NCAA players have often been on national stages under the bright lights for years before ever stepping foot on an NBA floor. Lebron was a spectacle in high school and was still a teenager when the world immortalized him.  This phenomenon never occurs in baseball.  We always make our players prove it in the minor leagues, ala Mike Trout and Bryce Harper

Let’s for the sake of discussion assume that Lebron is indeed basketball’s face and let’s determine why. He’s unequivocally the best athlete in his sport, his career numbers put him on pace to be one of the best players of all time, his personality is big and bold and he can flash a tremendous smile, contagiously capturing the attention of non-basketball fans. He wears championship rings and one could make the case, at least today, that Miami is a good market for basketball (back to back titles helps).

In his correspondence with Olney, Stark alluded to the NBA more efficiently and effectively promoting their players and while that may be true, he failed to mention the marketing power of Lebron’s partner in exposure, King Nike.

In MLB, we’ve never had a player as ferociously thrust into the spotlight as Michael Jordan or James. Part of that is a result of the fact that we baseball players wear spikes and my 11 year old can’t wear baseball cleats to elementary school. Therefore, sales of cleats will forever pale in comparison to basketball shoes. It’s also possible that Nike has yet to see a character as resplendent as Mike; that they haven’t yet deemed one of ours worthy of royal status. I submit that we have but one player capable of wearing baseball’s crown and he loudly stomps the putting green grass of Dodger Stadium.

Although Ken Griffey Jr. was iconic, uber athletic and close to being the guy on the pedestal, he was hurt by his market in Seattle and I reckon Nike would admit that they didn’t throw the same dollars behind him that they do James. “The Kid” was nearly our golden boy but never quite reached the pinnacle.

The closest we came to having a front man was Bo Jackson in the 80’s. Nike’s dynamic “Bo Knows Bo” campaign was a marketing push generally reserved for the stars of other sports that garnered the sort of attention showered on Jackson. Remember that he was made the face of the All-Star Game and a pop culture point of reference with whom everyone in the country was familiar, regardless of their interest in sports. My mother, who doesn’t really follow sports, recognized Jackson.

While I’m certain Jackson drove attendance and ratings up in Kansas City, and dropped jaws whenever he was seen publicly, the climax of the frenzy was too short, as was his career.

I think we can agree that Nike did all it could to immortalize Bo, but he didn’t play baseball exclusively. He was a better football player and thus, he could never be the face of MLB even if his career lasted 15 plus years. As long as he was running over linebackers and away from defensive backs, his legacy was sure to be one of the pigskin variety.

Yasiel Puig is mysterious, partially because he speaks so little English but also because we are just learning his story. In contrast, guys like Harper and Trout had years of ramp up time based on draft status and Baseball America hype. We have yet to digest Puig’s deeper thoughts due to the language barrier and that somehow makes us yearn to understand him. Just weeks into his career, America was gossiping like a group of giddy high school girls.

2013 Snapshot: The Face of Baseball
G PA AVG SLUG OPS wOBA H HR RBI K% Miss%
Yasiel Puig 52 222 .371 .599 1.022 .436 75 11 25 23.9% 38.0%
Mike Trout 107 495 .325 .557 .969 .412 137 17 66 17.0% 18.7%
Bryce Harper 71 295 .279 .538 .910 .383 70 16 37 19.0% 25.3%

Puig was due for a correction, which has indeed occurred after his ridiculously hot start when the overzealous baseball world dubbed him a hall of famer after a few weeks of action. I still believe the cry for his all-star status was absurd, but that’s a debate for another time. He’s swinging and missing too frequently (on pace for 169 over his first 162 games) walking too little, running the bases recklessly and overthrowing cutoff men like an irresponsible little leaguer. He’s pissed opponents off with his perceived lack of humility and colorful behavior and rubbed some media members wrong with a certain level of inaccessibility.

And all the while he’s been the most charming, exciting, engaging and flat out fun player that I’ve ever witnessed. I literally can’t take my eyes off him when he’s at the plate for fear I’ll miss something. Miguel Cabrera up? I’ll watch Puig. Last night he was messing around with Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid’s world famous soccer star, and you could sort of feel the viewers saying “Hey, that soccer player is sooooo lucky.”

I mentioned his swing/miss rate and other issues, but the fact remains that over the course of his first 200 plus plate appearances only Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis have a higher wOBA, a stat that combines the various, meaningful aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting them all appropriately for their actual run value. This stat essentially allows us to measure a player’s overall offensive worth. It’s not perfect but it suggests that Puig has been dominant offensively and his OPS of 1.002 at the time of this writing is an endorsement of the claim.

So what can we learn from 215 plate appearances? Not nearly enough to elevate him ‘top of the game’ status. But we know from watching him for several months that he’s a freak athlete. If you define athleticism like I do, as a combination of size, strength, speed, agility, hand eye coordination and power, a case could be made that he’s the best athlete to put on a baseball uniform since Bo. And Bo was the greatest athlete ever to don spikes.

Puig plays in Los Angeles, a few miles from the Hollywood sign and has captured the adulation of Angelenos like no baseball player since Fernando Valenzuela. I grew up and live in the region and can vouch for the fact that the Dodgers players don’t get nearly the publicity of the Lakers players. As long as I’ve been alive, this has been a basketball town. But something is different around here and it’s due in large part to the arrival of Puig. Since he strolled into Los Angeles sporting an imposing linebackers’ frame, the Boys in Blue have the best record in baseball and the city is abuzz with Puig fever. I’ll go as far as to say that in two months, he’s become more popular than any Laker this side of Kobe.

The Dodgers aren’t fading away anytime soon. With new ownership, a sparkling TV deal coming, a core of young talent that includes not only the NL’s best left handed pitcher but Hanley Ramirez; who has been better than Puig. They boast starters in Greinke and Ryu that can matchup with any teams’ #2 and #3, and have a legitimate shot at a World Series title. And with boatloads of money, they have an opportunity to be the Yankees of the other coast, competing yearly for the NL West’s top spot with a financial advantage. Are there rings for Puig in the future? It’s totally fair to speculate that the answer is a resounding yes.

The helmet removing, 22-year-old talent from Cianfuego, Cuba is no regional phenomena. #Puig is quickly becoming a household (and trending all over social media) name. He’s a bold, vibrant character that the major networks love and will clamor for on their national broadcasts.

Yasiel checks all the boxes. There isn’t another player in MLB that can do the same. Trout’s not loud enough, Machado’s too humble, a pitcher can’t wear the belt because they don’t play daily, I’ll listen to an argument for Harper but I’ll debate his durability.

I fully recognize that the stars have to align here, but stay with me.

Guess what logo resides on the side of Puig’s royal blue spikes? The Swoosh’s importance to this discussion has little to do with running faster or jumping higher. In this case, it’s impossible not to fantasize about Nike executives fighting over the opportunity to be the creative lead on commercial scripts, billboards, print and web ads, etc. If the Dodgers win this year and Puig is the X factor, we will have our face of baseball in the United States and he’ll be Cuban born. Imagine that.

Who do you think should be the face of baseball? Share your comments below…

  • https://profiles.google.com/111816512728529271504 Eric Mooney

    I share some of the same observations about Puig. Those who write him off as an arrogant player who tries to show up other teams just don’t get Puig. I have never seen him talk smack about other players or gesture towards another player in any way. When Ian Kennedy hit him in the face, he just went to first without even glancing at Kennedy. He shows his real emotions out on the field. He doesn’t wear the shackles of American baseball tradition and is ignorant of its code. People resent that. It isn’t lost on me that this young Cuban man plays the game with more FREEDOM than than any player in America.

  • Spencer Steel

    It’s hard to have a face of baseball when, other than the starting pitcher, the focus is so infrequently on any one player. Even when it IS a starting pitcher, 4 days out of 5 he’s in the dugout. Conversely, basketball, like no other team sport, operates and relies on the ball being in the hands of the best player almost every offensive possession.

    I love watching the at-bats of guys like Puig, Cabrera and Trout, but their impact is necessarily limited by a batting order. As far as Puig’s exuberance, obviously a lot of it is cultural. I see things from games in Cuba and the Far East that would violated a lot of baseball’s “unwritten rules”. Usually they’re happy, celebratory things. It’s almost as if the idea of Puig’s fellow MLBers is to make sure he doesn’t enjoy playing baseball too much.