Puk aiming to go back to his roots as a starter

February 16th, 2024

JUPITER, Fla. -- Before news came out Friday that Marlins left-hander Braxton Garrett is dealing with general left shoulder soreness, manager Skip Schumaker addressed the club’s rotation options.

Aside from the usual suspects, left-handers A.J. Puk and Ryan Weathers as well as right-handers George Soriano and Max Meyer are being built up. Puk, in particular, is a surprise considering he hasn’t made a start through his first 142 big league outings.

“Something always happens in Spring Training,” Schumaker said. “You always cross your fingers and hope nothing happens healthwise and hope everybody has a healthy camp. So again, there's just a lot of factors that happen throughout a camp, and that's why you build up as many guys that you think have a possibility of starting throughout the year. I will tell you that most teams are planning on probably eight to 10 starters this year to help their team at some point. So the five that we break camp with, [it] doesn't mean that's the five the whole year. So we've got to figure out the depth.”

Puk, who mostly started at the University of Florida and through his first two pro seasons from 2016-17, wound up pitching more in relief from 2019 on after coming back from Tommy John surgery. Over the next few seasons, injuries kept him from starting on a consistent basis.

But Puk was building up as a starter for Oakland when Miami acquired him on Feb. 11, 2023. The Marlins’ area of need, however, was at the back end of the bullpen, so that’s where he went.

After a strong first month of the season as the team’s closer, Puk struggled for a stretch before settling into a setup role and finishing with a 113 ERA+. Told the organization would build him up in 2024, Puk spent the offseason preparing for that role.

“It's always been [in] the back of my mind, not really having a chance in the big leagues to get a start,” Puk said. “So I've got another opportunity right now, and I'm just going to try to make the most of it.”

The 28-year-old Puk’s training focused on endurance to withstand a higher workload. He gained muscle by upping his lifting from six-eight to 12-15 reps. Puk also added a changeup and a cutter -- two pitches he tried out before -- in the hopes of retiring right-handed hitters with them. Those offerings would complement an arsenal that includes a heater and a slider. According to Baseball Savant, Puk's sinker had the most horizontal movement of any sinker (from a lefty) in the Majors’ final month of the season (just 19 thrown). Though he didn’t have enough pitches to qualify for any leaderboards, he got three inches more drop and 3 1/2 inches more horizontal break against average compared to similar sinkers at his velocity.

And though Puk’s sweeper got less horizontal break (-4.4 inches less break vs. average), it garnered positive results. His 38.9% whiff rate ranked 20th out of 94 pitchers who got at least 50 swings on sweepers. His 19% hard-hit rate was 10th lowest of the 71 pitchers who got at least 25 batted balls on sweepers.

“After talking with him, after seeing his stuff, and obviously the size of Puk (6-foot-7, 248 pounds), I think the durability is going to be OK, even though he's had some injuries before,” Schumaker said. “He grew up as a starter. His whole life he was a starter until he was hurt. He feels really good now. The sinker later in the year, the characteristics were as good as anybody's in the big leagues. So he can throw top of the zone with the sinker. Obviously, the slider is real. So I think now he has starter stuff, and so that's our thought behind it. [If] we can get him as a starter and he shows up and it looks right, that's exciting for him and for us.”

Added Puk: “Fighting for a starting spot, [it] just makes Spring Training more fun and a little bit more competition out there to earn a role. We've got a lot of great starters on this team. When I was traded over last year, I was just kind of in awe, just all the starters they had, so it's going to be an honor if I can earn a job.”