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Yasiel Puig, unbound

The Wild Horse of the Dodgers has been feeling himself all playoffs long. It’s been good for Los Angeles, and great for baseball.

MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Chicago Cubs Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Since he debuted in 2013, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig has filled every role someone demanding a narrative could want. From phenom to malcontent, clubhouse cancer to a veteran presence during his time down in Triple-A, Puig’s ebullience has infected everyone who plays with him, watches him, and commentates on him. (Not always in a good way, but that’s not his fault.) He’s also been a uniquely fun player to watch. Puig has finally made it to the biggest stage in baseball, once again at the center of the storm for the Dodgers. He’s in no way a perfect player, but he’s everything I want to see in the World Series.

Puig is not a truly spectacular baseball player on the level of, say, Mike Trout, or even Manny Machado. His numbers speak to that. He’s very good — he posted a 117 wRC+ this year with a career high 28 homers, career high 11.7 percent walk rate and his lowest ever strikeout rate at 17.1 percent — but he’s probably the fourth or fifth best position player on the Dodgers at this point (which does speak to their incredible potency throughout the lineup). They’d be a shadow of what they are without him, though, merely a collection of talented ciphers that crush baseballs and leave little impression. They don’t even have the interesting Seager. I don’t want to reduce Puig to some sort of on-field mascot or a cheerleader who happens to blast home runs now and again, but he’s certainly the one the camera tracks towards. Baseball is a game we love to analyze, but it’s a game all the same. He knows how to truly play it. In Hollywood, and now in October, that’s going to be a major theme of the next week or so of games. We’ll probably enjoy it.

He’s perfect for this iteration of the Dodgers. It’s a little amazing how organically they grew over the last 18 months as they folded in new faces, got younger with the arrival of Corey Seager and Joc Pederson, harnessed the explosion of Cody Bellinger, found gold in Chris Taylor. This sudden youth movement away from the likes of Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier — the old guard that powered the offense when Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi first took over — somehow has Puig as its veteran presence. When he got demoted, he was freed of the judgmental gaze of the older players on the Dodgers, reportedly flourishing in the OKC clubhouse and being a mentor of sorts to the younger guys. Now that the Dodgers are full of some of those youngsters on the roster, or at least newcomers, he’s the old head and can be the guiding light. Older generations would have seizures at that prospect. But Puig is just what the games needs now, and just what the Dodgers should look like.

That might be my favorite thing about Puig: how apoplectic he makes some fans and writers. Wait, no, my favorite thing is his outfield assists, then the unbridled enthusiasm. But after that, it’s the conniption fits he causes. It’s like there’s a whole cottage industry of journalism around just Puig’s “antics”. Whether Phil Mushnick whining about his bat-flipping on doubles, or Ron Darling complaining that his scoring a run run was piling on, or even Keith Olbermann taking a break from captaining the media wing of the #Resistence to kvetch on Twitter, it’s a theme we’ve been privy to since Puig broke into the league. Is it wrong that I enjoy reading these articles for the out-of-touch silliness they unwittingly hold?

Divisional Round - Arizona Diamondbacks v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Again, it’s not like Puig is bad at baseball; he just isn’t a stoic. He’s pretty above-average in everything the modern player should do. He pulls the ball the 16th most of any qualified batter at 46.5 percent of the time, his 35.6 percent fly ball rate is 67th among qualified batters, his HR/FB rate is 37th at 19.7 percent, and he’s always taken the extra base at an above-average 48 percent clip. If anything, he’s buttoned himself down this year too much — only going the extra base 32 percent of the time. And yet even with this newfound on-field maturity and control, there’s still a happy madness to him.

Maybe I’m just falling prey to recency bias, but to this point Puig is somehow perfect for October. He’s crushed it all month, posting an 1.169 OPS so far. Having a .440 BABIP helps certainly. But like Jose Altuve (though not on Altuve’s level) he’s an active player, not content to lay back and wait for a mistake to happen. Puig forces mistakes. He is high energy, borderline reckless. And he has a blast doing it. Through 118 career October plate appearances he does own an .800 OPS, and he’s just getting started. The middle portion of those games include a period where he was in a funk, not able to properly love life. But Puig’s back now. And he’s better than he’s ever been. He’s less raw power, more focused. As mentioned above, he’s walking more and striking out less, and hitting for more power. He’s also chasing less out of the zone, his 29.4 percent O-Swing rate a career low. In general he’s swinging substantially less, his 46.2 percent swing rate is nearly three and a half points lower than his career average. He’s still that Wild Horse that Vin Scully christened him, but he’s judicious with it.

If the Dodgers have to win the World Series, I want it to be on the back of an insane stretch by Puig. Not like the assault that David Ortiz laid upon the Cardinals back in 2013, but more a handful of doubles and triples, a few ill-advised but successful steals (and a few caught-stealings in ultimately unimportant moments, just so we can shake our heads ruefully), plus a cannon shot or two from the outfield to cut down Altuve or Correa or whoever trying to take an extra base. I want Puig, unbounded.

Bryce Harper wanted to bring the fun back to baseball, but all we needed was a comfortable, happy, excited Yasiel Puig in a clubhouse that accepted his eccentricities. Everyone shouldn’t be like Yasiel Puig. That would be too much. But he should be exactly who he is.

Merritt Rohlfing writes about baseball at Beyond the Box Score, Let’s Go Tribe, and hopefully somewhere else. Listen to his hit podcast, Mostly Baseball, weekly. Follow him on Twitter @merrittrohlfing. Ask about his cat.