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2016 Phillies Draft Preview: A.J. Puk, LHP

And so begins the process of reviewing possible Phillies Draft picks for 2016. Puk is about as close as there is to a consensus #1 guy this year. So this is why I'm starting here, but there are several months for guys to pass over him (this time last year, Dansby Swanson wasn't even in the conversation for #1 overall).

An actual picture of a Draft prospect. I'm off to a banging start here.
An actual picture of a Draft prospect. I'm off to a banging start here.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

First the basics, Puk is a 6'7", 230 lb Lefty originally from Iowa, but currently Pitching for the University of Florida as their Saturday Starter. For those unfamiliar with the parlance of College baseball, Friday is Ace night. Most series in College run Friday through Sunday (often with a single game midweek against a cupcake opponent) and coaches want to start the weekend with a win, so they typically run their top Starter out Friday. So, is it a concern that Puk isn't his team's Friday Starter? Nope. Florida has one of the better Pitching staffs in College and the Friday Starter, 6'2" Logan Shore, will be a First Rounder as well. Essentially, you can't go wrong with either starting either night and perhaps with Puk on Saturday you improve your chances of starting every series 2-0 going into Sunday.

Puk was previously drafted in 2013 by the Detroit Tigers in the 35th Round. He was ranked as a Top 100 prospect, but it was also widely known he had a strong commitment to go to Florida and wouldn't sign with a pro team. The Tigers clearly figured in the 35th Round to say 'What the hell' and drafted him.

Puk has a 3 pitch mix with a Fastball that works solidly Plus, but occasionally sits Plus-Plus. He even hit 99 mph against Arkansas during the SEC Tournament. He's likely close to maxing out his velocity, but him ending up sitting Plus-Plus with a mid-90's Fastball seems like a pretty realistic outcome. The Fastball has good arm side run and, thanks to his height, great plane to induce ground balls.

In High School, Puk threw a big loopy Curveball. Florida dumped that pitch and had him develop a Slider. It's an out pitch that shows solid Plus with good consistency. A pro team may try to resurrect the Curveball, just to expand his arsenal, but it wouldn't be a necessity for him, as he does occasionally alter his Slider into a bit of a Curveball.

Puk's third offering is a pretty average Changeup that will likely need some work. Coming from High School he was well regarded for having a very advanced Changeup for a cold weather Prep Pitcher. While the pitch has improved, it hasn't improved as dramatically as his new SLider and his heavy Fastball. I think this leads to some evaluators potentially underrating the pitch a bit. Puk has been a K machine in College with a 12.0 K/9 rate last year, but not everything is perfect, as his control can be a bit erratic, as evidenced by his 4.0 BB/9 rate.

6'7" is an unfortunate height in some ways, as Pitching mechanics can get a bit wonky when Pitchers start trending over 6'5".  Puk has had some of that, to combat the issue Florida has had him work more from a more stretch like starting position. His stuff probably gives him a rather high relief floor if the control and command never materialize. Of course, that's not what you want to say about a possible #1 overall pick very often.

Let's look at videos. That's always fun. Below we'll start with Puk vs. South Carolina last April (video courtesy of Andrew Krause). In the first segment taking from the classic scouting angle behind the plate you can see a few key things. First Puk has an odd stutter with his feet at the start of his windup. minor issue, but could get cleaned up in pro ball. Second, he throws a little across his body. That's not something you're going to be keen on changing, but some people worry about injury from these mechanics. The good news is that it allows him to hide the ball a little longer in his delivery to both Righties and Lefties. The third thing you'll note quickly is that everything is down in the zone.

The second video below here is from his USA Baseball work last Summer at the USA Baseball Complex in Cary, NC and their games against the Cuban National team (Video via Fangraphs). Puk's Control was better in the Summer with USA Baseball, but not perfect. One of the things I notice in this video more is his landing foot inconsistency. There are a few wicked Sliders where the foot is pointed straight at Home Plate and he gets good location and swings and misses, but there are a few pitches where his foot is pointed to the dugout, the pitch pulls to the arm side of the plate and misses the mark. Many of the pitches require a little hop to straighten the foot out after release. The second half is from Florida's season game against the Miami. In this his control looks pretty good, his landing foot is pretty consistent and the hop is more pronounced.

My last Puk video is from the College World Series (courtesy of 강동우). What's great about this video is it's every pitch of his CWS work against Virginia in ~9 minutes. It's TV broadcast so the angles aren't great for mechanics and whatnot, but it's good for seeing his wandering control, effective wildness, shape of his pitches and tendency for a few somewhat sloppy hanging breaking balls as he gets tired (plus around the 8:20 mark you can see some Josh Tobias action, as he fairly effectively wins a fist fight with the ball to get an out).

Puk just finished his season debut for 2016 as I write this and the Phillies brass packed the stands. Pat Gillick was present along with Scouting Director Johnny Almaraz and 2 other scouts (per Jim Salisbury, link). Puk had some struggles in the game due to errors in the Fourth, but reports are that his Changeup looks much better, his Control was better (only 1 Walk surrendered by him in 4 innings) and he was pretty consistently 94-96 on the radar guns. It's a long slog before the Draft, but I'll be doing a follow-up piece on Puk at some point, I'm sure. There's a lot of raw talent to be excited by here, and if the skills take another step forward this year as they did last Spring and Summer, I may already have written about the #1 overall pick.