Don Mattingly had no choice.
Mattingly’s handling of Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig has been one of the most polarizing topics of the baseball season, with the most recent buzz coming Wednesday when Mattingly benched Puig before the fifth inning of a game against the Cubs. Wednesday’s decision once again opened up the debate over whether or not Mattingly is pulling the right strings in regards to the controversial outfielder, but in reality, benching Puig was the safest decision, best decision and only decision worth considering.
In the wake of Puig’s benching, some statistical gurus pointed to the 22-year-old’s impact, with the message being, “The Dodgers are better with Puig on the field.” Well, yeah. That’s obvious with a simple eyeball test. If Mattingly didn’t bench Puig at some point amid the outfielder’s continuous lapses in judgment, though, the Dodgers skipper would have run the risk of screwing with an entire clubhouse dynamic.
No one is disputing that the Dodgers are better off with Puig on the field. He’s a special player, and he’s a big reason why Los Angeles has completely turned its season around. But that doesn’t mean Mattingly should allow a free-for-all to ensue from here on out.
OK, maybe that’s overstating it. But it was clear that Puig wasn’t getting the message, as his fundamental flaws and flashy style were continuously overshadowing his incredible tools. The tipping point for Mattingly should have been — and perhaps was — when Jerry Hairston Jr., a 16-year veteran, and other Dodgers veterans pulled Puig aside and basically said, “Hey, that’s enough.”
The little chat really should have been enough for Puig to realize he was on thin ice and thus adjust his ways. But it wasn’t. And that ultimately forced Mattingly into a make-or-break situation that was handled perfectly and that should be remembered when we’re having a discussion about the NL Manager of the Year results.
If Mattingly continued to turn a blind eye and refrained from benching Puig, what message would that have sent to Hairston and the team’s other veterans? From the outside looking in, it would seem like a slap in the face and a direct indication that their opinions didn’t hold much weight. From then on, Mattingly would have been tasked with managing a superstar-laden bunch — featuring pieces from the infamous 2011 Red Sox squad and the oft-scrutinized Hanley Ramirez — that was basically told, “Do what you want, as long as you produce.” Perhaps the Dodgers wouldn’t have skipped a beat — after all, this isn’t Little League — but we’ve seen in the past what can happen when a manager loses a handle on his clubhouse.
Gabe Kapler said recently while discussing Puig that the Red Sox sometimes had to look the other way when it came to “Manny being Manny.” But in the Red Sox’ case, it wasn’t before Terry Francona solicited the opinions of his veterans. According to Francona’s book, Francona: The Red Sox Years, the former Red Sox manager and current Indians skipper asked Jason Varitek and others about how they wanted him to handle Ramirez before he eventually made a decision. In this instance, the Dodgers’ veterans had already aired their grievances, and it was time for Mattingly to act.
Let’s also keep in mind that the Dodgers have a sizable lead in the NL West and were playing the Cubs, who flat-out stink, when Puig was benched Wednesday. Yanking Puig in that situation to help set up a smoother future seems like a sensible trade-off.
The Puig benching seems to have worked out — for now, at least. Puig has vowed to give 100 percent, and both parties have seemingly gained respect amongst their peers. Let’s just hope that we can view each isolated incident as such moving forward rather than being blinded by perception every time Puig’s play is questioned.
Sometimes, the best move is the one you don’t make. In the case of Puig, not making a move would have been disastrous for Mattingly and the Dodgers.