The Oakland A’s have three Top 100 national prospects in their system, and they called up one of them this week in pitcher A.J. Puk. The flamethrowing lefty made his highly anticipated MLB debut on Wednesday, so let’s take a closer look.
When Puk was promoted, manager Bob Melvin said that he would use the youngster in a big spot right away if necessary, and that’s what ended up happening on Wednesday. Oakland was hosting the Yankees, who have the league’s most prolific offense, and they found themselves with a tight two-run lead entering the 8th inning. With most of their top setup men already spent earlier in the game, they turned to Puk to hold the line.
It didn’t go great, but it was thrilling to watch and it all worked out in the end. Puk faced three batters and only retired one of them, and he threw almost exclusively fastballs rather than mixing in his excellent slider, but he pumped the dynamic velocity we’ve heard about for years.
The first pitch of Puk’s career clocked at 98 mph, right down the middle, and it was fouled off by lefty Mike Tauchman. His next three pitches missed badly, including one extremely high slider, but one of the fastballs reached 99 on the gun. Another one at 99 found the zone this time, but Tauchman once again fought it off. One more wild offering gave Tauchman a leadoff walk.
The next batter was righty Cameron Maybin, who had already struck out three times in the game and looked lost all night. The first two pitches were beautiful — 98 down and in just below the zone, and another 98 on the outside of the plate, both of which Maybin swung right through. The third offering might have been his best of the night, jamming the batter on the upper-inside corner at nearly 100 mph (99.5), but Maybin at least managed to make contact. The weak (68 mph) popup flared out into no-man’s land in shallow right, but second baseman Jurickson Profar made an amazing diving play to snag it.
As an aside: Was that Profar’s best play of the year in the field? He’s received plenty of criticism for his defense, which has been abysmal, but that’s mostly been due to his throwing. On this play he’d been positioned close to the bag, so he had to run extra far to get to this ball, all with RF Chad Pinder hurtling straight toward him in his own effort to chase it down. Not only did Profar make the catch, but he then had the presence of mind to throw to first base, where he nearly doubled off the wandering Tauchman.
Unfortunately, Profar’s great catch turned out to be the only out Puk recorded. The next batter, lefty Mike Ford, only saw two pitches and ripped the second one for a single. The 99 mph heater found the lower-inside corner of the zone, but Ford caught up to it and tagged it with a 110 mph exit velocity, lining it into right field.
That was it for Puk, who exited with two runners on and one out. Closer Liam Hendriks then came in, struck out MVP candidate DJ LeMahieu and superstar Aaron Judge to strand Puk’s runners, and then retired the side in order in the 9th to seal the victory.
Overall, Puk threw 11 pitches, 10 of them fastballs of at least 98 mph and the other a wild slider. Six of them went for strikes, including two swinging (one of them chasing out of the zone), two fouls, and the two balls in play. He’d never thrown to catcher Josh Phegley before, and the lack of sliders was partly due to that unfamiliarity, reports Ethan Strauss of The Athletic.
Of course, anytime there’s an MLB debut, there are always nerves and jitters to account for. “My heart was racing. I was trying my best to calm it down. ... It’s the first one. I got it out of the way. Now, hopefully, it’s smooth sailing,” Puk said, via Ben Ross of NBCS. Adding to that pressure was the enormous applause he got when his name was announced — A’s fans know exactly who he is and how amped they should be about him.
And so the first game is in the books for Puk, the former sixth overall draft pick and current Top 40 national prospect. The results weren’t great but they weren’t disastrous either, and we haven’t really seen his second pitch yet (slider), which is also billed as being elite in its own right. We certainly saw enough to keep being excited. Hat tip to Profar for helping record Puk’s only out, and to Hendriks for playing hero to keep Puk’s ERA at 0.00.
Welcome to the Show, A.J.!