Young Yasiel Puig vs. Joltin' Joe DiMaggio

Joe DiMaggio and a friend - Wikimedia Commons

Puig completed June with the most hits ever by a rookie -- but for one slightly significant exception.

It's got to be a good omen for your career when you finish the first month of your rookie year with more hits than any other tyro ballplayer except Joe DiMaggio. The tale of the tape:


G

PA

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

SB

CS

BB

SO

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

Joe

26

130

126

30

48

15

4

4

28

2

0

3

8

.381

.400

.659

1.06

Yasiel

26

107

101

19

44

5

1

7

16

4

1

4

20

.436

.467

.713

1.18


The league-average hitter averaged .289/.363/.421 in the American League of 1936, so without adjusting for park context (and Yankee Stadium did not cut in Joe's favor), and using the very clumsy OPS as a shorthand for production, DiMaggio was about 35 percent better than the average hitter. With this year's NL hitting .251/.313/.394, Puig was about 67 percent better than the average hitter, and that doesn't take into consideration a lot of other things that DiMaggio didn't have to deal with, like integrated leagues, night baseball, relief pitchers with 100-mph fastballs, and the slider. When it comes to smash-hit debuts, the Jolter was big, but Puig was better.

How did DiMaggio get 23 more plate appearances than Puig despite starting only one more game? My first guess was a slew of extra-inning games, but both players had three such contests during the month. No, the correct answer is that the Yankees had a much better offense. In May of 1936 they hit .309/.395/.534 as a team, going 20-8 and scoring 7.8 runs per game. They had what was by far the best offense in the league, scoring 64 more runs than the second-best team. They were aided in this by this 25-2 win over the Philadelphia A's, a game in which DiMaggio had seven at-bats as the lineup just kept turning over.

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In contrast, the Dodgers hit only .256/.309/.390 in June, scoring just 107 runs, the eighth-highest total in the league. Whereas DiMaggio had the 25-run game and five other contests in which he had six plate appearances, Puig never had more than five.

Like Puig, DiMaggio started his rookie year a bit late, not getting into the lineup until May. Unlike Puig, who didn't come up until June because the Dodgers judged (perhaps incorrectly) that he needed more than 23 games of minor-league seasoning before being ready for the big leagues, DiMaggio was simply injured. In the second-most serious injury caused by a diathermy machine*, DiMaggio was being treated for a sore foot after being stepped on when sliding into the second-base bag during an exhibition game. The trainer apparently set the machine to "parboil," and DiMaggio was badly blistered.


*Dale Alexander was a big, slow first baseman who came up with the Detroit Tigers in 1929. In his rookie year he hit .343/.397/.580 with 25 home runs, and a few years later he won the 1932 AL batting title, hitting .367. The next season, Alexander hurt his leg sliding into home plate. The trainer tried to treat him with diathermy. Unfortunately, he apparently set the machine to "solar" and then knocked off for lunch. By the time he got back, Alexander no longer had a leg, but something more like a roasted drumstick. That was the end of Alexander's major league career.

Probably the biggest question raised by Puig's start is, "Is he really that good? Will it last?" The glib, easy answer is, "No one is that good." After all, we haven't had a .400 hitter since Ted Williams and it seems unlikely we'll have one again anytime soon; it was (for the reasons listed above) easier for a player to be far better than the league in the 1930s and 40s than it is today. DiMaggio couldn't keep it up, not in his rookie year. He was nearly this good at times in his career, but in ‘36 he fell off after that first month, hitting .309/.341/.556 the rest of the way. No doubt the Dodgers will be thrilled if Puig "only" hits that the rest of the way.

DiMaggio, of course, had a long minor-league track record that suggested he was a great hitter in the making. In four seasons with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League beginning when he was just 17, he had hit .361 with good power. We don't have that kind of record for Puig. His minor-league numbers are probably just as good, there's just a lot less of them -- 63 games versus 463.

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DiMaggio actually hit in worse luck than Puig has -- his batting average on balls in play during that first month was .311, whereas Puig's was an incredible .500. BABIP isn't the answer to world hunger, but in this case it probably should suffice as a hint that we should expect the laws of gravity to reassert themselves sometime soon -- and even then, Puig could give back 200 points and still be incredibly productive. Puig's higher strikeout rate is also a clue. The difference is partially an artifact of different times, but it also suggests a problem for all hitters trying to compile a high batting average: you have to put the ball in play to make it happen, even (and especially) when you have the BABIP fairy working for you.

When that happens, and to a lesser extent if it happens, remains to be seen. In the meantime, the one thing we know for sure is that right now Joe DiMaggio leads Puig in just one category: best song.

Puig doesn't have his own big band song -- yet. Until such time as the big bands come back into fashion and some writes one, I suggest he can adopt the 1923 Yiddish theatre song, "Oh, Yossel, Yossel." The chorus sounds enough like, "Oh, Yasiel, Yasiel," that I think he'll get by.

Someone invite Mandy Patinkin out to Dodger Stadium to do his version while Puig is still hot.

More from SB Nation:

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The ins and outs of Yasiel Puig

MLB trade rumors | MLB Daily Dish

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