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Oakland A’s prospect watch: A.J. Puk dominating in High-A Stockton

That hair tho.
Meghan Camino | Stockton Ports

In last summer’s draft, A.J. Puk had the talent to be talked about as the top overall pick but enough question marks that he fell to the A’s at No. 6. Oakland used their high pick to gamble on his elite upside, and so far it’s looking like they might have a jackpot on their hands.

Puk retired the first 10 batters he faced on Saturday against San Jose, and wound up tossing five scoreless innings for the High-A Stockton Ports. Only two batters reached base against him: a single, and a dropped third strike error, one of his nine strikeouts. He’s now fanning nearly 15 batters per nine innings.

Puk, 2017: 4.26 ERA, 25⅓ ip, 42 Ks, 8 BB, 1 HR, 17 hits, 2.21 FIP

Don’t worry too much about his pedestrian ERA, at least in this small of a sample. Focus on his domination of the strike zone, with more than five Ks per walk while almost completely avoiding hard contact. His rate of 17.2% swinging strikes is by far the highest among starters in the California League (min. 20 innings), more than two percentage points above the runner-up. Put into real-world terms, more than one in every six pitches Puk throws results in a swing and a miss.

The next test for Puk will be to stretch out into longer outings. To this point, the Ports have been employing a tandem starter system that has limited their hurlers to about four innings per game. However, they are beginning to move away from that setup (via A’s Farm, and Ports announcer Zack Bayrouty), and Puk will be one of the starters shifting to solo work.

Let’s keep an eye on how he holds up for a fifth and sixth inning, and how he fares when facing a pro lineup for the third time in a game. Efficiency was an issue in college but he kept it mostly under control during his tandem stints, averaging around 17 pitches per inning — hey, it takes a while to strike out 40% of the batters you face. Hopefully he can carry this early success into a full starter’s workload.

Extra stat: For his full pro career, dating back to last year, Puk now has 82 Ks in 58 innings.

Rotation: Unstoppable

As mentioned above, the tandem starter system is mostly done, throughout the A’s minors. Bill Moriarity from A’s Farm has more on that topic in his Farm Report.

The important thing for now is that Puk isn’t the only Stockton starter who is en fuego. In 7 games each:

Logan Shore: 2.84 ERA, 25⅓ ip, 28 Ks, 3 BB, 1 HR, 2.61 FIP
Evan Manarino: 2.02 ERA, 26⅔ ip, 25 Ks, 2 BB, 1 HR, 2.79 FIP
Brett Graves: 2.55 ERA, 24⅔ ip, 29 Ks, 3 BB, 3 HR, 3.55 FIP

That performance was enough to earn Graves a promotion up to Double-A Midland, where he’ll work as a solo starter. It’s quite a turnaround for the right-hander, who was drafted one round after Daniel Gossett in 2014 but generally struggled throughout his first couple pro seasons. Given that his first-ever pro success coincided with making shorter outings this year, I’m especially curious to see how he responds to being stretched back out.

We’ll look more at Shore and Manarino as the year goes on, but the story is the same: They did great in tandems, and now the training wheels are coming off and they’ll be transitioning to full starts.

Evan Manarino
Meghan Camino | Stockton Ports

As for the rest of the rotation: Dustin Hurlbutt has a low ERA and decent peripherals, but Boomer Biegalski is hearing his name come off opponents’ bats and Angel Duno is being lit up like a Christmas tree. But how about Casey Meisner (numbers include Sunday):

Meisner: 6.33 ERA, 27 ip, 28 Ks, 5 BB, 5 HR, 37 hits, 14.4% swinging strikes

I have no idea what to make of Meisner right now. Opponents can’t hit him, except for all the times that they do. Let’s just see where this goes. He’ll still be in a tandem, with Duno. That swinging strike rate puts him in third place in the whole league, just a hair below second place.

Bullpen watch

A quick look at the bullpen, which includes three lefties and a sidearmer (possible pilot for a new sitcom?). Here they are, including their draft year/round and a key stat for each:

  • LHP Jared Lyons (2015, 9th): 15.3% swinging strike rate
  • LHP Andrew Tomasovich (2015, 21st): Retired all 6 batters faced, 4 Ks
  • LHP Will Gilbert (2016, 8th): 56.3% groundball rate
  • RHP Nolan Blackwood (2016, 14th): 0.00 ERA in 11⅓ ip, 60.0% groundball rate

Gilbert and Tomasovich were just promoted from Single-A Beloit, so they’ve only appeared twice each. Can any of these four hurlers emerge as a sleeper prospect as the year goes on?

On the veteran side, 24-year-old righty Carlos Navas stuck around as a minor league free agent last winter after a solid 2016 in Stockton. He carries a 0.00 ERA and a healthy strikeout rate through 11⅓ innings, but at this point I’m only interested in seeing what he can do against higher competition. I’ll look at him again if he gets a call to Double-A.

Hitters heating up

Stockton’s lineup got off to a slow start, but it’s beginning to come around. They put together 38 runs over a five-game span from Tuesday through Saturday, though they were subsequently shut out on Sunday. Among those leading the charge:

  • 1B Chris Iriart: 3 HR in last 8 games
  • OF Tyler Ramirez: Last 10 games, 16-for-37 w/ 8 BB (.533 OBP)
  • IF Mikey White: 10 extra-base hits last 13 games (1.152 OPS)

White is in his second year at Stockton, but he’s doing much better this time around. Ramirez is settling in well and spraying hits all over, but let’s see if he can keep his average up over the long haul (currently .307).

Iriart is one of two members of Stockton’s lineup who appear on our Community Prospect List, and he’s back on track after a 2-for-24 start. He’s still striking out too much (swing and miss on one in every five pitches), but at least he’s hitting for some power when he makes contact.

The other CPL prospect is center fielder Skye Bolt, who is beginning to grow into his tools with great plate discipline (18.8% BB, 20.8% Ks) and a bit of power (8 XBH in 96 PAs, including 2 HR). His 137 wRC+ makes him the best everyday hitter on the team, and he’s been producing consistently from start to finish — he’s reached via hit or walk in 20-of-24 games so far.

Note: A third CPL prospect, C Sean Murphy, is on the disabled list.

One more deep sleeper: shortstop Eli White, last year’s 11th-round pick. He’s working on a 14-game on-base streak through Sunday (and 21 of the last 22 games), and his OBP (.392), walk rate (13.8%), and low swinging strike rate (6.3%) suggest a guy with intriguing table-setting skills.

Monday’s games

Here’s what to follow on Monday.

Triple-A Nashville: 4:35 p.m., Daniel Mengden (!!) vs. El Paso
Double-A Midland: 4:30 p.m., James Naile vs. Frisco
High-A Stockton: No game
Single-A Beloit: 3:30 p.m., Dalton Sawyer vs. Lake County

Yep, that’s Mengden making a rehab start in Triple-A!

Link to box scores

Photo credit: Meghan Camino and the Stockton Ports
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