Name: A.J. Puk
Height/Weight: 6’7’’, 220
Acquired: Selected in the first round of the 2016 MLB Draft.
In 2016, the Oakland A’s selected sixth in the MLB Draft, their highest draft position since they took Barry Zito ninth overall in 1999. With that pick, the A’s once again selected a collegiate left-hander, A.J. Puk of Florida. The A’s are hopeful that Puk will have a Zito-like impact on a future A’s rotation.
For most of the spring leading up to the 2016 MLB Draft, there was little to lead one to believe that Puk would still be available at pick six. He was rumored to be the Phillies’ target for the number one overall pick for months and several other teams in the top five appeared to have a strong interest in the Florida left-hander.
When draft day came, things changed. Puk had a strong junior season with Florida – striking out 101 in 73.2 innings – but he struggled to work deep into games thanks to command issues. That was enough for a few teams to back off of him, and the A’s were happy to pick him up when their name was called.
Puk spent his pro debut season with Short-season Vermont and he struck-out 40 in 32.2 innings for the Lake Monsters. That fall, the A’s sent Puk to Instructional League, where he worked on adding a sharper breaking ball to his repertoire of fastball, change-up and slow curveball. Puk also tweaked his mechanics, specifically firming up his back leg rather than bending it.
Puk spent the offseason working on those changes and he was able to carry them into the 2018 season. After spending time in big league camp as a non-roster invitee, Puk opened the season in the High-A Stockton Ports’ tandem rotation. Limited to roughly four innings in most of his outings with Stockton, Puk threw only 61 innings in 14 appearances, but he was dominant when on the mound. Although his ERA was 3.69, he struck-out 98 and held opposing batters to a .196 average. His 23 walks were his only blemish.
At midseason, Puk moved up to Double-A, where he would be a key member of the Midland rotation for the rest of the season. No longer part of the tandem rotation, Puk averaged nearly five innings a start with Midland and that average would have been higher if not for two disastrous starts against San Antonio, during which he allowed nine runs in 1.1 innings. He was also the A’s representative in the MLB All-Star Futures Game.
Overall for Midland, Puk had a 4.36 ERA and an 86:25 K:BB in 64 innings. Remove those two starts against the Missions, and Puk’s ERA dropped to 3.16. Texas League batters hit .256 against him but managed just two home runs.
For the season, Puk finished with a 4.03 ERA in 125 innings. He allowed only 108 hits and struck-out 184 while walking 48. He gave up just three home runs.
Puk throws four pitches and he had all four working well throughout most of the season, according to A’s minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson. Patterson said in an offseason interview that Puk got swings and misses on 40% of the curveball, slider/cutter and change-ups he threw and a 25% swing-and-miss rate on his fastball. When hitters did make contact, it was generally of the weak contact variety. His FIP was nearly two runs lower than his ERA.
“His ERA is probably a tick higher than you’d like and you might say, ‘Gil, why is his ERA so high?’” Patterson said in that offseason interview. “It seemed like it was more the groundballs that got through. Let’s say he walked a guy with two outs and then a blooper gets him in. It wasn’t damage [that resulted in the runs]. You hate to say he was unlucky, but there is a certain amount of truth to luckiness.”
Patterson was impressed with Puk’s work ethic and his willingness to take coaches’ advice and put it into practice.
“We would make him do all of these drills and now during the season, he continued to do drills that re-emphasize his mechanical key,” Patterson said. “He learned to pitch. He competes. He’s become a better pitcher and a better power pitcher. He knows now that it isn’t always about how hard you can throw it. Sometimes a 2-1 change-up is better than a 2-1 fastball. He’s around the plate more.”
A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman says Puk grew a lot mentally during the 2017 season.
“I just think that he’s had a great learning curve this year,” Lieppman said in a late-season interview. “Going to the Futures Game and being able to get rid of that reputation that he had to throw a lot of pitches to get through outings in college. The atmosphere that his command was an issue. We haven’t seen that with him at all. He’s thrown a lot of strikes.”
Although Puk’s command still isn’t perfect, it is much improved over where he was in college and Patterson believes Puk will continue to get better at staying in the strike-zone as he develops. Puk’s biggest issue during the second half of the season was getting through a line-up a third time. That is likely the final thing the A’s will want to see him improve at before they make him a regular part of their starting rotation.
Puk is currently in A’s big league camp and is one of the few pitchers who has thrown well so far this spring. The A’s may be tempted to have Puk start the season in Oakland, but it is more likely that he spends a few months in Triple-A working on his approach to the fifth and sixth innings. He finished the 2017 season with some forearm soreness but has been healthy so far in camp. Puk is a solid bet to make his major league debut sometime in 2018.
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