Cesar Puello is better than you think. Much better than you think.
Just 19, and getting better by the day, he’s not going to contribute in Flushing this year, or next, but he has the potential to make whoever’s in charge at Citi Field feel very, very lucky sometime in 2013 or 2014.
Puello is listed as 6’2″, 195 lbs. Honestly, that’s fairly non-descript. What that doesn’t tell you is that he’s an athletic and ripped 200 pounds. He’s a well above average runner. Scouts grade him at 70 or above on the 20-80 scouting scale. He has an above average arm in right. He’s strong with current strength across his shoulders and chest and explosive strength in his lower half. He puts on a show in batting practice, driving the ball easily over the left-field wall, but has not taken that power yet to games.
At the Plate
Puello was rawer than I expected in April. He led the Gnats in broken bats, which was an indication that he was getting jammed all the time, hitting the ball inside the label and off the sweet spot of the bat. Early on, his offensive game rested on fighting pitches off to right field. He almost never drove the ball or pulled a pitch to left field.
He stood right on top of home plate and started his bat near the center of his chest with his shoulders hunched forward as the photo to the right illustrates. As Puello himself said, “I was like leadoff guy. I was little, they throw me a lot of inside, I was too close to home plate.” To get ready to swing, he both had to bring his hand a long way back to load, AND relax his shoulders. That’s a lot to ask. As a result, he was late on fastballs, even SAL ones. Because he had to start early to catch up to the heaters, he chased breaking pitches.
In May, he reworked his swing. He stepped back a little from the plate. Instead of started crouched, with his hands in the middle of his chest, now, he begins relaxed, with his bat resting on his back shoulder. This creates a shorter hand movement for him to get loaded. His shoulder don’t have to move to begin the swing, and now he can attack the baseball with much less effort. He also worked on getting his front foot down earlier. He explained the changes, “Before, I didn’t have good balance. Now, I’m trying to feel good, be tall, put my hands back… and be slow, slow and then boom, reaction.” The results in the month of May (.192/.259/.232) were ugly, and he admitted that it took him “one month” to get used to the changes he’d made because immediately post-change, he “felt bad.” He’s learned in baseball that when getting better, “You want it to go quick, but you have to be patient.”
Puello, now the hottest hitter in the South Atlantic League has been rewarded for his patience. He’s hit safely in 14 straight games and reached base safely in 28 games in a row. In his last 14, Puello has hit .446 (25-for-56) with three doubles, a triple, a homer, four walks and four strikeouts. The triple and homer were both his first of the year. Since the All-Star Break ended on June 24, Puello has hit a robust .361/.440/.456. “No matter what, I’m trying to put the ball in play hard,” he said by way of explaining his recent hot streak. Also, by moving a little further away from the plate, “I have more chances to have follow through,” he says, which has helped him hit the ball harder.
Puello is not just making better contact; he’s making much more of it. In part, he has learned to choke up occasionally to put the ball in play. His strikeout rate has dropped from 20.5% of his plate appearances before the break to 11.2% post-break.
In addition to swinging away, Puello has refined his bunting technique and, with the infield back, can drop a bunt down as a nearly surefire way to reach base. It’s now an effective piece of his arsenal.
Puello’s on-base percentage is, in part, sustained by high hit by pitch rates. He’s been plunked 20 times this year. It speaks both to his willingness to sacrifice his body and his toughness.
On the base paths
Puello is second in the SAL with 44 stolen bases and having been caught only nine times, he’s been successful 83% of the time. He loves to run. “I want to steal more bases. I like to be dirty. I like to slide,” he said. “When I slide, I get that special feeling.”
In the outfield
Puello’s plus speed allows him to play shallow and cut off bloops and dunks to right. He retreats well on balls both to the gap and the corner and his arm is a weapon. His eight assists put him in the top 15 OF in the league, and the number would be higher except that some teams in the division challenge him less.
Just 19 in April, Puello has made tremendous strides this year. He’s an asset defensively and on the bases. At the plate, he’s cut his strikeout rate and is hitting the ball with more authority and pulling it more regularly.
And yet, it’s an usual profile for a corner because he hasn’t hit for power yet. He has the speed for center, but has played just one game at the position. A move to the middle of the diamond would push his value even higher.
In right, he’ll eventually have to hit for a lot more power to be an impact big leaguer. His body, strength and adjustments suggest he will add more home runs as he matures.
Puello’s English has come a long way as well since the start of the year. He’s getting it. We taped the interview below last week.