Oakland Athletics pitcher A.J. Puk has drawn all kinds of comparisons to Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson this offseason. But how far off is he from truly evolving into “The Little Big Unit”?
Game 145 in most baseball seasons is just another game down the stretch of a grueling 162-game slate. But in 1995, thanks to the baseball strike that shortened the season, it was do-or-die for the Seattle Mariners.
The Mariners had miraculously overcome a 13-game deficit to force a one-game playoff against the California Angels. They stared a 19-year playoff drought in the eye as they took the turf at a sold-out Kingdome.
But any apprehension was quelled by the 6-foot-10 ace who took the mound — Randy Johnson.
Johnson exuded quiet confidence, but it couldn’t possibly be mistaken for a lack of intensity. He was the epitome of a player that made the game look easy.
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With the city of Seattle piled into a capacity Kingdome, the towering lefty stared down the heart of the plate, toward Los Angeles Angels’ slugger Tim Salmon, and delivered his 1-2 pitch.
It was a wicked backdoor slider that caught the outside edge — and, more importantly, Salmon looking.
Johnson pointed his glove to the sky and was swarmed by his teammates, then by a crowd so raucous that the Mariners would have to be escorted off of the field. Johnson had capped off his dominant 1995 season with the highest winning percentage of any pitcher.
Weeks later, the Mariners would meet their playoff maker in the form of the Cleveland Indians. But Johnson was the runaway choice for the American League Cy Young — his first of five.
Tim Salmon would eventually have to relinquish his title as “Best Angels Player Whose Last Name is a Fish” to some other guy who, at the age of four in 1995, was probably hitting 400-foot shots off a tee.
But most important — at least in terms of this article’s purpose — was the baby born months earlier in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Times have changed. Randy Johnson retired over a decade ago after his age-45 season. Mike Trout’s proficiency in hitting off a tee translated into the skillset of a pretty okay baseball player. And the Mariners haven’t made the playoffs in 19 years.
That child from Cedar Rapids, born Andrew Jacob Puk, would head down to Gainesville, Florida to pitch with the University of Florida, where the comparisons to the Big Unit would begin.
When he was taken as the sixth overall pick in the 2016 Draft, those comparisons were merely surface level. Puk was considered a highly talented, but volatile prospect, capable of developing into a dominant force but trailed by questions about his command and ability to remain healthy.
There have been few, if any, pitchers in the game that have been likened to Randy Johnson. Of that list, only a fraction have earned even a portion of that praise.
The resemblance is striking, at first. Puk, himself, is a towering lefty when he’s up on the mound. While he isn’t quite as tall as the Big Unit, he’s already been tagged with the moniker “Little Big Unit” since he’s only 6-foot-7.
He earns bonus points for the flowing locks.
When the comparisons first came, they admittedly weren’t deserved. Sure, he was tall. Sure, he was a pitcher. Sure, he threw left-handed and had long hair.
The rest remained to be seen.
As we’ve gradually seen more of his character, A.J. Puk‘s similarities to Randy Johnson have become even more apparent.
Puk carries himself similarly to Johnson — carrying quiet, commanding confidence. From his debut back in August, coming out of the pen, Puk kept his head down and walked to the mound as if he was there because he had a job. He did. And he still does.
In that inaugural appearance, the thing that caught everyone’s eye was his elite velocity. Puk was pumping his four-seamer in there in the upper-90’s — even reaching 100mph on one occasion.
Randy Johnson’s fastball was equally electric. He would have been a fine pitcher if that was the only pitch he offered. Puk, in his debut, was fine because he relied almost entirely on that fastball.
But Johnson wasn’t limited to just a single pitch. What elevated him to a Hall of Fame level was his devastating slider, which sat in the high-80’s and low-90’s. That single pitch is what made him un-hittable. That pitch sent the Mariners to the playoffs for the first time ever.
Puk threw just a single slider in his debut — a wild 90 mph off-speed pitch that missed high by about five feet. He quickly ditched it for the rest of his outing, likely because his heart was banging louder than a Houston dugout right before a changeup.
That slider is what will determine just how far A.J. Puk is able to go.
We’ve seen the clips each year at spring training of Randy Johnson rocking his dad jeans, holding his cold-brew, and looking eye-to-eye with Puk as he stands up on the mound.
Each of those years, the Walnut Creek native has likely been able to relate to some of the early career hurdles that A.J. Puk has been faced with. None of those hurdles are larger than the viability of the slider.
Puk will almost certainly get a chance to pitch every fifth day with the Oakland Athletics this coming season. While we can expect to see that fastball continue to pound the bottom of the zone, knocking on the doorstep of triple digits, the slider is his make or break pitch.
Puk has thrown a total of 13 pitches in the spring, mixing all four of the pitches in his arsenal. It’s an even smaller sample size than what we got in the last two months of last season.
But his slider looks much improved.
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While his velocity has dipped slightly — most likely as a result of the long offseason layoff — his breaking pitches look a lot sharper.
His arm slot seems to have dropped slightly compared to last season, slowly approaching the angle by which Randy Johnson pitched.
In either case, the slider slings through the zone and quickly darts to the back foot of Kris Bryant to make him look foolish on a flailing swing. A pitch that nasty is going to be giving lefties nightmares.
The advanced analytics also reflect the effectiveness of A.J. Puk’s fastball and slider.
Across his 202 pitches thrown last season, Puk’s QOPA scores — a metric used to determine the quality of pitches when isolating velocity, break, and location — place his fastball in the third percentile and his slider in the tenth percentile.
When it comes to pitch selection, Puk relies more heavily on his fastball than Johnson did. Compared to Johnson, Puk throws his slider about 10-15 percent less often.
That may be the product of Puk still perfecting that pitch. It could also be a sign that Puk is simply programmed to fall back on his fastball when the command of his slider is harder to come by.
However, in order for Puk to take the next step, he’s going to have to pair those two pitches to keep hitters looking foolish.
“It’s like a hopeless feeling. The first time you face him you feel like he’s going to hit you right in the back of the neck when he throws it, like every pitch is going to hit you in the back of the neck. And it ends up down and away for a strike and you just have to trust it’s going to be a strike, and heaven forbid he doesn’t lose one out there and heaven forbid, there goes your cheek.”
That was the effect of Johnson’s debilitating slider. It was what took the effective wildness of his early career and transformed him into a pitcher to be feared.
From the moment that A.J. Puk was drafted, he was bound to be likened to the great Randy Johnson. With his large frame, long hair, and heater coming from the left side, he was all but guaranteed that comparison.
His challenge is to retain that comparison. To reflect the Big Unit’s demeanor, to shadow Johnson’s “Mr. Snappy” that had Dunn fearing for his well-being, to become the intense enigma that Randy established himself as.
Puk has shown that he has the tools to continue earning that appraisal. He’s validated the early, surface-level evaluation.
And this season, he’s poised to show flashes of the same dominance that made Randy Johnson seemingly one of a kind.