Name: A.J. Puk
Height/Weight: 6’7’’, 220
How Acquired: Selected in the first round of the 2016 MLB Draft
For much of the spring, A.J. Puk was projected to be the first overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft. When Puk slipped to the sixth overall spot, the A’s jumped at the opportunity to grab their first top-10 pick pitcher since Barry Zito in 1999. Can Puk have a Zito-like impact on the A’s organization?
A few minor injuries and high pitch counts due to bouts of wildness limited Puk to 73.2 innings in his junior season for Florida. Puk posted a 3.05 ERA for the Gators and struck-out 101 while walking 37. He finished his NCAA career with a K/9 rate of 11.67, but also had a BB/9 rate of 4.22.
Armed with a fastball that can touch 98 and a sharp slider, Puk came to pro ball with the goal of improving his command and incorporating his change-up, a pitch that he rarely used while in college. Because Puk’s innings total with the Gators was relatively low, he was able to make 10 starts with the short-season Vermont Lake Monsters after signing with Oakland. The A’s kept Puk on an innings limit, but he still racked up 32.2 innings in the New York-Penn League. For the most part, he pitched well for Vermont. His ERA was 3.03, but four of the 11 earned runs he allowed came in his second-to-last start, when he lost his command and walked five. Over his other nine outings, Puk had a 2.10 ERA and a 38:7 K:BB. New York-Penn League batters had a tough time squaring Puk up. He held opposing batters to a .185 average and he had a 53% groundball rate.
Despite the success he found in Vermont, Puk put in plenty of work on his mechanics and his repertoire once he got to the A’s fall Instructional League. A’s minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson was pleased with how quickly Puk embraced making changes to his delivery.
“You don’t know the personality [before meeting the player]. You know the talent, but you don’t know the personality. That was nice to see. He was coachable and a few of the things that we did with him mechanically there and in Instructional League he was really open to,” Patterson said. “He worked hard on those things and got better. That was probably the most refreshing thing to see. He’s very respectful. He might be a little bit on the quiet side right now, but there are plenty of guys who are quiet who are successful. I think his confidence grew as he went along. But the coachability aspect was excellent.”
Puk worked closely with A’s minor league pitching coach Steve Connelly during Instructs. One of the biggest areas Connelly and Puk worked on was with his wind-up.
“We did simplify his wind-up a little bit. Originally, he did have more of a rocker-step and we synced it up a little bit more with his move out of the stretch,” Connelly said. “Typically, motions out of the stretch have fewer moving parts, so it is easier to repeat. The idea being, too, if we can give him that same move out of the wind-up, it will be easier for him to repeat. But, also, it gets him down to having one delivery instead of having two deliveries. One is always a little bit easier to repeat than having two different ones.”
Connelly came away impressed with Puk’s change-up and worked with the lefty to add a curveball to go along with his sharp slider.
“When he came in, we started working on a breaking ball with almost a shorter, cutter-like break. He really bought into that and felt comfortable with that. [A’s Florida scout Trevor] Shaffer had seen him in college throw a couple of slower breaking balls that he really liked,” Connelly said. “We talked to A.J. about that and had him spin a couple for us and everybody liked it, including him. We then worked on that in the second half, just to give him some more separation. The harder breaking slider is around 87-88. His change-up is around 85 and he has this slower curveball that’s around 80.
“To have that separation from 80-83 to the change-up being 84-86 to the harder breaking ball being 87-89 and obviously the fastball being in that 93, 94 to 97 range, I think that is going to really help him to find success next year.”
Puk brought those changes into A’s big league camp this spring and had solid results in his first exposure to upper-level competition. He struck-out the side in his first outing. Puk allowed a solo homer and two walks in his second outing before settling down and finishing that inning with two strike-outs. A’s coaches were complimentary of Puk’s curveball during his time in big league camp. He was sent down to minor league camp on March 5.
One other positive that came out of Puk’s spring was how he looked physically. At 6’7’’, Puk is high waisted and has always had an awkward appearance on the mound. He also weighed about 250 pounds last season, but came into camp trimmed down by about 15 pounds. Puk will never have Mark Mulder’s smoothness on the mound, but A’s Scouting Director Eric Kubota believes Puk, who played quarterback in high school and was a two-way player when he got to Florida, is a better athlete than he looks.
“He’s a big kid and obviously it’s easy to see awkwardness if you want to see that, but we think he’s a good athlete,” Kubota said after the draft. “We know he went there as a hitter his freshman year and certainly we think he is more athletic than people give him credit for and we think that athleticism will help him reach his ceiling.”
Puk has drawn comparisons to former A’s lefty Drew Pomeranz, who was the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft by the Cleveland Indians. Like Pomeranz, Puk has a big body and some command issues, but has a high ceiling fastball-slider combination. Pomeranz still struggles with pitch efficiency and command, but he has a career 8.7 K/9 and has developed into a solid mid-rotation starter.
Puk has a chance to be a top of the rotation starter if he can harness his command. The A’s have simplified his delivery to make it similar to David Price’s rock-back-and-fire approach. Eliminating some of Puk’s moving parts could improve his command. His fastball has elite velocity, but he is still working on being able to spot the pitch better to both sides of the plate. When his slider is working, it is a swing-and-miss offering that sits in the high-80s. His curveball could be a good change-of-pace pitch, as well.
What will make or break Puk, ultimately, will be the development of his change-up and his command. He has a good base to work with and an organization that specializes in developing change-ups, so Puk has a chance to have that be an effective weapon. If he isn’t able to improve his command, his stuff is still good enough that he could be a fifth starter or a late-innings reliever. It may take some time for Puk to put it all together given his size and the number of adjustments he is making, but the payoff could be immense for the A’s.
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