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Eyeball Scout Sizes Up Jharel Cotton, A.J. Puk

MLB: Spring Training-Cleveland Indians at Oakland Athletics
“Bunny incoming!”
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend, the Eyeball Scout was fortunate enough to have a chance to watch Jharel Cotton and A.J. Puk up close. He then also watched video of Puk’s inning to catch the CF camera angle with which he is more accustomed. Apples to apples and such. The low-down...

Jharel Cotton

For Cotton’s Sunday start, we had excellent seats right behind the plate just a few rows back. In terms of results, Cotton was very effective in the 1st inning before scuffling a bit in the 2nd — after the game he said he had lost focus during the inning — before escaping with no damage.

However, spring training is not about results and neither is the Eyeball Scout. It’s about process. I am on record as being a Cotton-believer, opining that his stuff makes him a viable #3 SP with #2 SP upside if everything rolls right. I like his mound presence and think he has a good chance to maximize his skills.

Watching Cotton up close, what stood out to me is that I think his fastball does not get enough praise. It really gets on hitters quickly, appearing not to lose significant velocity as it arrives to the plate. The radar gun is plenty bullish to begin with, clocking Cotton’s fastball at 93-94MPH, but just as significant to me is that not all 93MPH fastballs are alike and Cotton’s feels like it explodes on the hitter whereas some feel like they sit on a tee on their final approach to the catcher.

Cotton’s signature pitch is his "bugs bunny changeup," but I think it’s his fastball that makes him more exciting than some scouts believe. You cannot sit on Cotton’s offspeed offerings or the fastball will be on you and by you in an instant, and hitters know it.

On Sunday, Cotton didn’t really have the feel for his changeup until the very end when he unleashed a beauty to end the 2nd with a strikeout. He lopped one unimpressive slider up there, not unusual for the first week of March, but also mixed in a few solid breaking pitches. I don’t see Cotton’s cutter or slider being great at this point, but I do see them being serviceable enough to give him a legitimate 4-pitch repertoire. And if two of those pitches are good enough -- and I believe his fastball and changeup are — he is going to be just fine.

Prediction: Cotton will end the season no lower than the A’s 3rd best SP regardless of where he is "slotted" in the rotation.

A.J. Puk

Our seats were a tad to the side of home plate for Puk’s Sunday relief appearance, and so today I watched his inning on video from the CF angle. While Puk did look a bit better to me on video, his inning left me with multiple concerns.

From a results standpoint, Puk struggled giving up a leadoff HR and then walking two before escaping without further damage. Puk did record a pair of strikeouts in the inning.

Puk’s fastball looked fine in terms of velocity and garnered several swings and misses, even though to my eye it didn’t have terrific movement, as you see with Manaea (fade) or Graveman (sink). He didn’t throw it for strikes consistently, but one could make a case that he was squeezed a couple times. At the very least you could say he wasn’t "all over the place" so much as he was "just missing" — so overall, the fastball was fine. Except for the one he laid in center cut that was, predictably, launched over the LF wall.

The secondary stuff gives me a lot of cause for concern, and to those who liked what they saw I want to explain why I was not so sanguine. Puk’s main offspeed offering was a slider meant to be a Brett Anderson (or if you prefer to dream, Randy Johnson) "backfoot slider".

It’s not that the slider didn’t have any bite, or that it hung. It’s that if you watch the video, pause it as the pitch is halfway to the plate and you’ll see that as intended it looks like a strike only to break down and in to a RH batter.

The problem? Even when Puk threw it with 2 strikes and executed it well, batters laid off. Every time. There is a lack of deceptiveness to the pitch, and that’s what I think I was picking up on live even from the side angle I had.

What can cause a pitch to be too recognizable? It can break too early, or it can be thrown from a slightly different arm slot or torque, or its break can be too gentle. Whatever it is, batters have a split second to react and so those differences are going to be barely discernible to the observer. Ultimately, no matter what a pitch looks like to the viewer it’s the hitters who will tell you how effective, or deceptive, it is. And Puk’s slider, even when thrown to look like a strike only to break down and in, was not tempting batters to swing even with 2 strikes.

Meanwhile, the changeup is very much of a work-in-progress. Puk threw one curve and threw it for a called strike, but to my eye it was your basic "get me over" curve and nothing sharp, knee-buckling, or impressive.

Where does that leave Puk? He reminds me a lot of Drew Pomeranz, whose pedigree was nearly identical as a #5 overall pick (Puk was a #6 overall pick), who also had a mid-90s fastball he could throw by hitters but only sometimes command, and whose changeup was a work-in-progress coming up through the minors. The main difference? Pomeranz did have a plus breaking pitch in the knuckle curve, yet still needed 3 minor league seasons and 4 big league seasons before his changeup developed to the point where he could be an effective SP.

In summary, here is a list of concerns Puk needs to overcome:

- He needs to command his fastball more consistently

- He needs to fool hitters with his slider

- He needs to develop at least a decent changeup

- He needs to avoid 30-pitch innings, as Sunday’s was and as too many of his college innings approached

And one more I haven’t mentioned yet:

- He needs to harness his gangly 6’7" frame to be mechanically consistent (something that nearly every tall pitcher struggles to do, especially if their delivery has a lot of moving parts, as Puk’s does)

On the plus side — and it’s a huge plus — Puk is only 21 and has just begun his professional career. So we are seeing the rawest of raw products, at a point where time is working squarely in his favor. I just think he does have quite a ways to go before he’s ready to subdue big league hitters — especially when you consider that the inning we saw did not actually feature big league hitters. And if guys you’ve never heard of are laying off Puk’s best pitches...Well, you get the picture.

Prediction: I know some fans believe Puk will move quickly through the minors, but I don’t foresee it going that way at all. I think he has so many important weaknesses to address and overcome that he will be more of a "one level a year" guy. I could see Puk coming up for the 2020 season and, like Pomeranz, taking a couple seasons to get his bearings at the big league level. Maybe he figures things out in 2022 or 2023, if he figures them out at all. He has potential, and if anyone can bring out the best in him it’s probably the A’s, but to me Puk is very much of a long-term project.

Eyeball Scout out. Peace.