The Puk family has a history related more to football than baseball. A.J.'s father, Dr. David Puk, was a four-year football letterman and Academic All-American at the University of Minnesota from 1982-85. And A.J.’s uncle Steven Puk lettered at Minnesota in 1984.
Another uncle, J.J. Puk, was an all-Big Ten linebacker at the University of Iowa from 1986-87 and yet another of those Puk brothers, Kevin, lettered at Stanford from 1989-91. All four played football at Cedar Rapids Washington High School, the same school A.J. attended.
And A.J. was the team's quarterback through his sophomore year in high school. But his dream was baseball, so that is where he put his focus.
"When A.J. gave up football, I've got to admit, Friday nights died for me," David Puk said. "It's hard to put into words, but there’s always been a Puk playing football,” David continued. “All my brothers would call me and ask me what he was going to do, and I told them, ‘Well, he’s giving up football.’ And we all kind of went, ‘Well, OK, it’s not the end of the world.’ But it felt like it every Friday night and I do miss those Friday nights."
During his junior year at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Puk signed a letter of intent to play baseball at the University of Florida
In 2013, he passed up the Tigers offers when they chose him in the 35th round. He became a Florida Gator instead.
Puk's mother, Chris, was a gymnast at the University of Missouri during her college days. His father, Dr. David Puk, is a Cedar Rapids ophthalmologist.
In April 2015, Puk and a Florida Gators teammate Kirby Snead were arrested and charged with third-degree criminal trespass after they climbed a crane inside a marked construction site on Florida's campus. The charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor and he was briefly suspended.
After the suspension, Puk returned to help lead the Gators to the 2015 College World Series, going 3-1 with a 1.82 ERA and 59 Ks in 40 innings in his final seven starts.
Puk said the incident helped him, using it as a learning, maturity thing. "It helped me grow up,” Puk said. “It helped me mature a lot more and focus more on what I can do to help the team.”
Puk struck out 251 hitters in 194 innings in his three seasons at Florida. As a junior, opponents batted .191 against him.
June 2016: The A's chose Puk with their first-round pick (#6 overall), out of the University of Florida. He signed for $4,069,200, via scout Trevor Schaffer.
In 2017, the Baseball America Prospect Handbook rated Puk as the 2nd-best prospect in the Athletics' organization. Then, in the winter before 2018 spring camps opened, they had A.J. as the #1 prospect in Oakland's farm system. He was at #2 in the offseason before 2019 spring training, behind only LHP Jesus Luzardo. Same for the spring of 2020: Luzardo was #1 and Puk #2.
In 2021, Puk was again at #2, but this time behind only C Tyler Soderstrom. But A.J. was at #6 in the spring of 2022.
- In 2017, Puk represented Oakland in the All-Star Futures game. He got himself into trouble when he entered the game with one out in the ninth inning, walking the first batter he faced before getting Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to pop out. He allowed consecutive RBI singles to cut the United States' lead to one, but he then got Mauricio Dubon to ground out to end the game.
August 21, 2019: When A.J. was called up to the Majors, manager Bob Melvin told reporters he was not going to be afraid to put the left-hander in a tough spot. And the manager stayed true to his word.
Melvin made the call for Puk to begin the eighth, inserting him into a high-leverage situation with the A’s holding a two-run lead. His fastball was as good as advertised, reaching as high as 99.5 mph on the stadium radar gun, but Puk was unable to finish the inning as he recorded one out in between issuing a leadoff walk to Mike Tauchman and allowing a single to Mike Ford. The out came on a fantastic sliding catch from Jurickson Profar to retire Cameron Maybin.
“My heartbeat was racing. I was trying my best to calm it down,” Puk said. “I walked the leadoff guy, that can’t happen. But it’s the first one. It’s out of the way. It was a special moment. My family was in town, and they were able to see me throw in the Major Leagues. Just great all around.”
It wasn’t the ideal outing for Puk, but his ERA in the Majors remained clean thanks to Liam Hendriks’ escape job. “That was huge. He cleaned up my mess I left him with,” Puk said. “I wish I would have pitched a little bit better, but it’s all right.”
From the crowd of 22,017 fans who gave him an ovation as he entered the game, to the A’s players in the dugout anxiously watching from the top step, there was a certain buzz that is only reserved for young players such as Puk, Oakland’s No. 2 prospect and No. 43 overall by MLB Pipeline.
“It was definitely pretty cool. I remember my first time,” Fiers said. “Just a great experience for him. He’s definitely going to be really good.”
Puk threw 11 pitches, 10 of which were fastballs. But this one was different from your average heater. “Watching him out there is something special,” Hendriks said. “There’s a little bit of extra sizzle on the ball. It’s going to be special.” (Gallegos - mlb.com)
PALS WITH JESUS LUZARDO
2020 Roommates: For the last several years, it seems the names Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk appear in the same sentence more often than not.
The two left-handed A's pitchers were prospects at the same time. Injured around the same point in the season. And even made their major league debuts a few weeks apart.
But despite all that common ground, Luzardo and Puk definitely are not the same person.
“We’re super different, and we’re super alike in the same way,” Luzardo told NBC Sports California.
For full effect, they completely agree.
“There’s definitely a similarity and difference between us personality-wise,” Puk said.
“We hang out, we go eat probably every day. We’re super tight in that sense,” Luzardo shared. “But he comes from Cedar Rapids, I come from South Florida. I speak Spanish, he can’t even say hello in Spanish. He’s got long hair and is 6-foot-7, and I’m 6-foot.
With that established, they’re also not helping the trend of being commonly grouped together. Because they’ve actually lived together each of the past two spring trainings. And plan to live together to start the 2020 season in Oakland. (Brodie Brazil - Feb. 29, 2020)
2023 Spring Training: The nature of the business works in mysterious ways.
A.J. Puk was all set up for Spring Training in Arizona when the Marlins acquired him from the A's for JJ Bleday. Puk packed up his things, arrived in South Florida, and took his physical to join his new club. Meantime, Puk has reunited with one of his best friends in baseball: Jesús Luzardo. Once expected to be a formidable left-handed duo in Oakland's rotation, the former top prospects found themselves wearing Marlins gear and playing catch on a back field at the Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium complex.
The pair became close in 2019, when Puk was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Luzardo, whom the Nationals had dealt to the A's in '17, had dinged up his shoulder and needed to remain behind after camp ended. Puk had an extra bedroom at his place and asked Luzardo if he wanted to move in. They wound up spending the entire year rehabbing together, then made their Major League debuts less than a month apart in '19.
"It was great," Puk said. "We became pretty good buddies throughout the years from that, and even when he was traded [in 2021], we were still in communication quite a bit. I'd come visit him in Florida when I was staying out in Arizona for the offseason. It's been a good relationship. Real happy to be here and just be back in Florida."
"It’s extremely exciting,” added Luzardo. “I found out, and then he called me right away. It’s exciting. We lived together when I was over in Oakland for parts of three seasons, and then two offseasons together. That’s one of my very close friends, best friends. I’m excited to have him. Great piece of the team and a great addition to the clubhouse. Great guy. Great clubhouse guy.”
"It was definitely big for me personally," Puk said of 2022. "I know there was, like, some question marks, just kind of had some tough luck. I always knew I could go a full year, and [there was] just kind of a little rough patch to start my career. Now I'm feeling really good, really healthy right now, just excited where my body's at. Excited for another year."
Added Luzardo: "He’s found his stride. He’s comfortable in the role that he’s at. Obviously, the stuff’s electric and he works really hard. There’s no ceiling for him." (Christina De Nicola - Feb. 15, 2023)
A.J. got some strange looks in the A’s clubhouse upon his arrival to Summer Camp 2020. Since joining the A’s as a first-round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, Puk quickly carved out a distinct look by growing his hair down to his shoulders. But on the first day of camp, Puk showed up to the Coliseum free of his once long flowing blondish hair.
"I had the clippers going on the side of my head and just said to take it all the way off," Puk said. "Some people didn’t recognize me when I first showed up. I told them I was the player the A’s got in the [Jorge] Mateo trade with the Padres.”
The long hair made it easy to compare Puk to Randy Johnson, who felt as if he had stepped into a time machine as he watched the 6-foot-7 Puk warming up during a visit to A’s Spring Training in February. Puk may no longer look similar to "The Big Unit” in appearance, but the A’s still expect the big left-hander to bring the heat on the mound, as Johnson once did.
“It’s a personal preference. I’ve been with Randy Johnson over the years, and I kind of liked the similarities, but if he likes it, I’m all for it,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “If it makes him comfortable, I’m completely on board with that. But he did have a unique look, and it’s a little different right now. It takes a while to get used to it.” (Gallegos - mlb.com - 7/10/2020)
Oakland had told Puk he would be stretched out to be a starter this Spring Training, so he added a splitter and worked on a sweeping slider and a cutter over the offseason. But Puk acknowledged that Miami wants to use him primarily in a bullpen role. Open to whatever roles are asked of him, Puk called high-leverage situations the "fun part of the ballgame."
Puk anticipated throwing all of his pitches early in camp so he and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. could decide what his arsenal will look like out of the bullpen.
"The acquisitions of Puk, [Matt] Barnes, [JT] Chargois, and to give us options on top of [Tanner] Scott, [Steven] Okert, [Tommy] Nance, [Dylan] Floro, creates a much deeper bullpen," Stottlemyre said. "[Having] some guys with some swing-and-miss stuff at the back is going to give our manager some nice options. We're probably going to mix and match back there and give the guys the ball, and they'll step up and define their roles as we go. Some guys that have done it and had experience back there, and it's a much better feeling going into the spring with those guys that we have back there. So lots of great options." (CD Nicola - MLB.com - Feb 15, 2023)
- June 2016: The A's chose Puk with their first-round pick (#6 overall), out of the University of Florida. He signed for $4,069,200, via scout Trevor Schaffer.
- Feb 11, 2023: In a swap of former first-round picks, the A’s sent left-hander A.J. Puk to the Marlins in exchange for outfielder J.J. Bleday.
|Birth City:||Cedar Rapids, IA|
|Draft:||A's #1 - 2016 - Out of Univ. of Florida|
Puk has a 93-100 mph FASTBALL that has running life and has a 70 grade because hitters can't square it up, because of its unique angle. He also has an 84-87 mph wipeout SLIDER/CUTTER with horizontal/side-to-side sweeping action and vicious bite, former A's manager Bob Melvin compares it to Dave Righetti's slide-job. It grades at 60. He can bury that slider in on righthanders and away from lefties.
He throws a near-average 45 grade CURVEBALL, but rarely, just to give hitters another look. He also has a CHANGEUP that he sells with solid arm action and deception that make it a 55 grade, on the 20-80 scouting scale.
In June 2021, A.J. lowered his arm slot, and his fastball velocity crept back up into his accustomed 96-97 mph range. He pitched better from that point onward, and the A’s called up Puk to Oakland to aid their bullpen in August. When healthy, Puk’s arsenal still looks potent. The A’s like the extension Puk gets on his fastball.
Puk will be 27 years old in April and has yet to make a big league start. There are evaluators, both internally and externally, who believe a future as a mid-rotation starter is possible while also acknowledging a high-leverage relief role is a more likely outcome considering his injury history. (Mark Chiarelli - BA Prospect Handbook - Spring, 2022)
It’s not a matter of stuff for Puk, who possesses some of the best of any left-handed prospect in baseball. What has kept him a step behind from other top lefties has been his command. He brings a power fastball that reached triple digits at times during his stint in the big leagues. It’s the heater mixed in with a nasty slider, that leads to plenty of swing-and-misses. He also mixes in a changeup and curveball to give him a solid four-pitch mix. Before cutting his long flowing hair, Puk and his 6-foot-7 frame drew comparisons to lefty Randy Johnson.
Injuries have become a concern with Puk, as a shoulder injury led to him missing out on a chance to pitch for the A’s in 2020 and he eventually underwent surgery in September for a cleanout of the left shoulder. Puk has the stuff to anchor a rotation, but the recent arm issues could lead to him transitioning to a bullpen role. (Spring 2021)
Despite his great stuff, it's his command that keeps him a half-step behind some. He has a premium fastball that touched triple digits during his time in the big leagues. His nasty slider misses a ton of bats and his changeup is nearly as good at times as well. He'll mix in a curve now and again and it gives him a fourth average pitch in his arsenal. All of it comes from his 6-foot-7 frame and gets on hitters in a hurry thanks to his tremendous extension.
Before Puk got hurt, his strike-throwing had improved from his college days, though there was a little rust once he got back on the mound competitively post-surgery. He's never going to have pinpoint command, but if he can find the strike zone consistently, he has the stuff to pitch near the top of a rotation.
A.J. has 50 grade Command. He has the ability to elevate or drive in on both sides of the plate as needed. His sizzling velocity, combined with the natural downhill plane from his 6-foot-7 frame, makes for difficult, uncomfortable at-bats. (Casey Tefertiller - Baseball America - March, 2020)
2019 Season Pitch Usage: 4-seam Fastball: 63.9% of the time; Change 9.4%; Slider 24.8%; Curve 2% of the time. Average velocity: 4-seam 97.5 mph, Change 89.8, Slider 90, and Curve 82.3 mph.
2020 Season Pitch Usage: Did not pitch.
2022 Season Pitch Usage/Avg. Velo: Fastball 46% - 97 mph; Slider 38% - 87 mph; Sinker 15.7% 96.2 mph.
A.J. is able to locate his fastball to both sides of the plate. And he gets great extension on his heater with his 6-feet-7 frame, making his already flaming fastball look faster! He almost never allows a home run.
When he throws online to the plate, Puk is difficult to square up and shows a ceiling of a front-end starter, but he must become more efficient with his pitches and more consistent with his command.
While maintaining balance throughout his delivery has been a constant concern, Puk’s walk rate stabilized at 3.5 per nine during the 2017 season, and he shows the pure stuff—including an average changeup and curveball—to project as a No. 2 or 3 starter. (Spring, 2018) (Editor's note: As of 2023, Puk never became a starter.)
Puk worked hard to harness his delivery. Puk is a big-bodied pitcher with a power arm. Traditionally, tall pitchers need more time to develop their mechanics and consistency, and Puk has had command issues at times.
His long levers and relative lack of athleticism make it difficult at times for him to keep his torso over his front side consistently, and his inability to repeat his delivery gives him below-average command. A head-whack finish further complicates his delivery. A’s coaches moved him to the first-base side of the rubber in 2016, to help square him to the plate.
A.J. repeats his arm slot pretty well now and gets his torso over his front side more consistently. When he stays balanced and online, he is very difficult for hitters to square up, even if they make contact. He does a good job of getting extension on all his pitches, especially the heater, from a pronounced downhill angle that is both intimidating and effective.
A's minor league pitching instructor Gil Patterson helped Puk streamline his delivery, focusing mainly on his front leg. The altered motion produced a more consistent release point. (Spring, 2018)
A.J. does a good job of using his height to his advantage, both by throwing from a steep downhill angle that helps him create lots of groundball outs, and to create deception in his delivery. The ball comes out of his hand differently. It is hard for hitters to see/pick up the ball.
2017 Improvements (Spring Training): Puk was nearly driving age by the time he learned how to throw a curveball, and it wasn't long after that his college coaches told him to stash it away for a future date.
That time is now. The left-hander has recently pulled it out of his pocket for the first time in nearly four years. The A's top pitching prospect is relearning the pitch while adjusting to life in his first big league camp. (Jane Lee - MLB.com - Feb. 20, 2017)
A.J. says he models his competitive nature after lefty Jon Lester. "I've always liked to watch Jon Lester pitch," Puk says. "I like the way he always competes, just the way he goes about his stuff."
July 9, 2017: Oakland's top pitching prospect was a month removed from college at this time last year. Now A.J. Puk is readying for a different kind of test. The left-hander, who is Oakland's No. 2 overall prospect, according to MLBPipeline.com, is prepping to go to battle with the best of the best among the Minor League ranks, after being named as the A's lone representative in the 2017 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game.
"One year ago in 2016, he was basically graduating," A's Minor League pitching coordinator Gil Patterson said, "and he's in Double-A and going to the Futures Game, and it's because he strikes out like 15 per nine so far in his career."
The young southpaw completed seven innings in his first Double-A outing but was pulled from his next start after just one-third of an inning with four runs, three hits and three walks allowed, prompting Patterson to message him.
"I sent him a text and said, 'Are you kidding me?' and he kind of LOL'd me back," Patterson recalled. The way in which young players respond to adversity is telling, and Puk flashed moxie the next time he returned to the mound July 2; he walked three batters in the first inning, but escaped unscored upon, before rattling off four more scoreless innings.
"That was a nice job of him coming back and showing some fight," Patterson said. Patterson continues to encourage Puk to utilize his changeup, which garners a tremendous amount of swings-and-misses, to complement his power fastball. Puk had both on display while pitching as a non-roster invitee with the big league club in Spring Training, where he played with many pieces of a young core that has potential to bring a winning team back to Oakland in the future.
"He's still got a ways to go," Patterson said. "He's not a finished product, but his growth from the mental and even the physical side, he was really receptive to some of the mechanical changes we did with him. He's growing and that's a great sign to see, and let's just hope it continues, and I certainly think it will." (J Lee - MLB.com - July 9, 2017)
In 2017, Puk was named the Athletics Pitching Prospect of the Year.
2017 Season: Puk led the minor leagues in WHIP while pitching in the thin air of the Cal League. That’s how special a pitching prospect Puk is turning into.
Though his ERA was 3.69, which is nothing to be ashamed of, his 2.24 FIP tells the better story. As does his 1.10 WHIP and .196 batting average against. Though his command can improve, he offsets it with an enormous strikeout rate, punching out 14.46-per-nine in his 61 Cal League innings.
Aug 20, 2019: The A's expect A.J. Puk to serve as one of the anchors to their starting rotation for years to come. His first chance to make an impact in the Majors, however, will come in a different role. Puk, rated Oakland’s No. 2 prospect and No. 43 overall by MLB Pipeline, arrived at the Coliseum before the series opener against the Yankees and is expected to work out of the bullpen.
“You draft these guys and follow them through their Minor League careers. There’s a reason we’ve handled this guy the way we’ve handled him,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “He’ll be a starter down the road, but at this point, he’s been conditioned for this. Now he’s in the big leagues and the training wheels are off.”
Converting from starter to reliever requires a switch in mentalities, something Puk had experience with in college.
“You have to be locked in every day,” Puk said. “Starting, it’s just one day, and the other days you have your routine. As a reliever, they call your name and you’re in. It gives you a nice adrenaline rush to get up and going.”
The big league debut for Puk will be a shining light at the end of what was a dark tunnel in 2018. The left-hander was on the fast track to the Majors and fighting for a potential rotation spot during a Spring Training that saw him allow no earned runs through his first three outings. But in his fourth start, Puk’s velocity decreased dramatically from the usual 96-98 mph to around 90-91. After consulting with Dr. James Andrews, Puk underwent Tommy John surgery that cost him the entire season.
From that last Cactus League game against the Mariners on March 15, 2018, Puk went through the long and grueling rehab process that comes with the elbow surgery. Over a year later, Puk made his return to game action for a start with Class A Advanced Stockton on June 11.
“My first game back in Stockton was one of the greatest days of my life,” Puk said. “It’s been a long year. A lot of hard work went into this, and now it paid off.”
Puk is expected to return to a starting role next season. He still does not possess his full complement of pitches as he’s stayed away from throwing his changeup to avoid elbow discomfort, though Puk did say he started throwing the pitch in bullpen sessions this past week. For now, his three-pitch arsenal, which features a 97-mph fastball to go along with a slider and curveball, should suit him well as he looks to provide the A's a boost in the back end of the bullpen.
“He throws rather hard. He’s got a good slider and has developed into the guy we expected him to,” Melvin said. “We’ve been excited watching his progress and excited to have him.”
Racking up 38 strikeouts over 25 innings in the Minors, Puk certainly has the power arm that is almost a necessity in big league bullpens these days to combat the home runs that are being hit at a record pace, and Melvin won’t hesitate to unleash him in a critical situation.
“I’m not afraid to use him in a big spot,” Melvin said. “Every time I’ve said a certain way we’re going to use a guy, we end up playing 14 innings and he’s in the 12th in a tie game, so we’ll see. Jake Diekman has been doing a nice job for us as that late lefty. A.J. is a guy we’re not afraid to put on some righties, too.”
Regardless of the spot Melvin decides to bring Puk in for his debut, he'll take the mound in front of a large crowd against the Yankees that will include his father, Dave, his mother, Chris, and his three siblings.
“I’ll probably be juiced up a lot,” Puk said. “We’ll see. I’ll try to stay relaxed and do the job.” (M Gallegos - MLB.com - Aug 20, 2019)
2019 Season: Puk's best pitch was his slider. It’s hard, averaging almost 90 mph, and it’s nasty. He threw it nearly 25 percent of the time during his brief big league debut in the A’s bullpen in 2019 and had a nifty 37 percent whiff rate as a Major Leaguer.
2021 Season: Puk had a brutal season, suffering an injury in April and pitching mostly at Triple-A Las Vegas. He pitched only 13 innings for the A's and had a 6.08 ERA.
- 2022 Season: The 27-year-old Puk went 4-3 with a 3.12 ERA and 4 saves in 62 relief outings. He had Tommy John surgery in 2018 and a shoulder operation two years later, costing him two seasons.
April 10, 2018: Puk had Tommy John surgery, performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, in Los Angeles. He'll be out of action for at least a year.
April 6-June 23, 2019: A.J. was on the IL.
March 3, 2020: Originally scheduled to make the start, Puk was held back due to what the club is calling a mild strain of his left shoulder. An MRI, following his start against the Rockies, revealed no structural damage, but the A’s plan to shut down Puk before determining the next step.
“We’re obviously going to be proactive, especially this time in spring,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s got a mild shoulder soreness. It’s going to be four or five days that we’re shutting him down and we’ll see where we’re at. Maybe start playing catch after that.”
July 20-end of 2020 season: Puk missed the entire season.
September 16, 2020: A. J. underwent surgery to repair his left shoulder. The procedure was performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache.
Sept 18-Oct 28, 2020: “Dr. ElAttrache is pretty excited they didn’t need to do any type of repairs within the procedure for A.J., and the plan would be for him to be throwing probably in about 10 weeks,” A’s head athletic trainer Nick Paparesta said.
The procedure involved a debridement of Puk’s labrum and rotator cuff while also cleaning out bursitis that had developed in the area. The optimism comes in that Puk did not require a repair or reconstruction of his left shoulder, allowing for a quicker recovery. (Gallegos - mlb.com)
Sept 18, 2020: The A’s are feeling optimistic about the future of A.J. Puk after the left-hander underwent successful shoulder surgery in Los Angeles. The procedure, performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache at the Kerlan Jobe Clinic, involved a debridement of Puk’s labrum and rotator cuff while also cleaning out bursitis that had developed in the area.
The optimism comes in that Puk did not require a repair or reconstruction of his left shoulder, allowing for a quicker recovery. A’s head athletic trainer Nick Paparesta said Puk could resume throwing in about 10 to 12 weeks, with a good chance of beginning next Spring Training on a normal routine without restrictions alongside the rest of the A’s pitchers. (M Gallegos - MLB.com - Sept 18, 2020)
April 8, 2021: The A’s placed A.J. Puk on the 10-day injured list with a strained left bicep.
April 15-20, 2022: Puk was on the IL.
May 14-June 6, 2023: The Marlins placed A.J. Puk on the 15-day injured list; the left-hander is dealing with some nerve irritation in his left elbow.
June 5, 2023: Puk was in Miami on June 5 after making back-to-back rehab appearances at Double-A Pensacola from June 2-3. He also pitched one inning for the Blue Wahoos on May 30.