Cesar Puello has had a weird start to his 2014 baseball season. When he’s played everyday, he has not hit much. When he has been shuffled in and out of the lineup, he’s hit a little better.
Just a year ago, at age 22, Puello won the Eastern League batting title and slugging title in a breakout season in which he hit .326/.403/.547 for the Double-A Binghamton Mets with 16 home runs and 24 stolen bases in 91 games. He was a consensus Top 11 prospect in the Mets system (No. 4 here, No. 9 at ESPN.com, No. 7 at Baseball Prospectus, No. 11 at Baseball America, and No. 7 at MLB.com). However, his season ended early with a 50-game suspension for his connection to Biogenesis, which he claims was for a substance obtained in 2012.
Moved up to Triple-A Las Vegas to start the season, Puello got off to a slow start, hitting .240/.283/.280 with two walks and 13 strikeouts through April 17. This is part one: when he was playing, but not hitting. He started in 14 of the Las Vegas 51s first 15 games. Then a funny thing happened. He stopped playing everyday. He started in just eight of the 51s next 20 games, through May 8 and 17 of their next 34 games, through May 23.
This period was not easy.
“It was hard, to be honest,” Puello said by phone from a Mexican restaurant over the sounds of a Mariachi band.
When he was not playing everyday, “It is hard to get the timing back,” he said.
Moreover, he confessed that moving in and out of the lineup affected his mental state.
“I’m just [trying to be] focused and working hard every day until they give me the opportunity. And you know, take the opportunity,” he said. “You have good days when you are focused on what you need to do … Some days you are distracted when you aren’t playing.”
Meanwhile, through it all, he started to hit. After hitting .244/.271/.293 in 23 games in April, he finished May hitting .291/.426/.436 in 20 games. After drawing two walks in April (2.3 percent), he drew seven walks in May (10 percent).
This was no accident. The Las Vegas staff, manager Wally Backman and hitting coach George Greer, worked hard with the young slugger to improve his approach.
“In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working to be more patient,” Puello said. “Waiting until they throw me my pitch instead of chasing a bad pitch.”
Of course, he has to remind himself to stay disciplined all the way through the at-bat.
“I just tried to be focused in my at bats and think the same thing every pitch. Doesn’t matter if the pitcher throws a pitch down in the zone. I’m just looking for my pitch,” he said.
For Puello, this is about returning to his more disciplined approach that served him so well in 2013. Asked to explain his success last year, he said:
“The strike zone. The more patient I am, the better hitter I am. It’s not just me. It’s every good hitter. You get a good pitch to hit, you will put the ball out of the park, you will put the ball in the gap, and do what you’re supposed to do. But when you’re too aggressive, and you don’t stick with your plan your not going to do all of that.”
So, at the end of May, Puello became an everyday player again for Las Vegas. He has started in 11 of the 51s’ last 12 games.
He gets it. This is his chance.
“I think this is the moment to move onto the next step to prove I can be an everyday player, ” he said.
He’s right of course. Up in Queens, where the Mets have lost six straight, despite a $23.5 million splurge this past off-season on corner outfielders, the Mets’ offense production from their outfield is No. 21 in baseball by wOBA (.308). Chris Young has hit .205/.295/.336. Curtis Granderson has done exactly what a reasonable person could have expected: he’s hit eight home runs, but his 26 percent strikeout rate has pulled his rate state down to .21/.331/.382 in his first 61 games.
And has Puello taken that return to the everyday lineup and hit his way toward a big league debut? Hardly, but he has shown a better approach. In his last 12 games, he’s hit .114/.295/.143 with a .133 BABIP. Remember, it’s 12 games and 44 plate appearances, but he’s controlled the strike zone as he’s drawn six walks (13.6 percent ) and fanned just five times (11.4 percent).
Puello’s on-base percentage has been supported by his willingness to give up his body. Every year in which he’s played 100 games, he’s been plunked by at least 20 pitches.
“When I get hit by a pitch, it’s like a mosquito bite,” he said.
Rather than worry about any pain which he says he doesn’t feel, it’s the pitcher who should worry, “The pitcher’s got to take care, because I will steal second and third.”
Where does this leave Puello and the Mets in June? He’s playing everyday, which is a first step. As he put it, “players get better playing on the field, not on the bench.”
Now, he’s back on the field everyday. The Mets could use help in the outfield. It’s up to him to make his case in Triple-A.