A.J. Puk expected to join an already thriving bullpen

OAKLAND — A.J. Puk, who is on the 10-day IL with a left shoulder strain, just started throwing from 75 feet out — not yet off a mound, not yet with a timetable for return.

One thing we do know: the left-handed pitcher will be making most of his 2020 appearances out of the bullpen, not the rotation where he was slotted to slide into before the injury came about.

Chris Bassitt slots in nicely into a rotation thats just starting to step into quality start territory.

The A’s, like any team, would prefer to see their starters climb deeper into games sooner than later. But reality trumps desired outcomes as baseball navigates a season during a pandemic. That first round through the rotation was always going to be a bridge to ramp up their arms perhaps at the expense of a few wins.

Puk will join a bullpen that’s allowed the A’s to get away with a shaky start from the rotation. With a relatively young rotation, pitching coach Scott Emerson says a veteran bullpen staff was essential.

“It goes back to the nervousness that I talked about with the younger guys,” Emerson said. “Liam Hendriks has been around, Joakim Soria has been around, (Jake) Diekman, (T.J.) McFarland, (Yusmeiro)Petit. Those guys have ice in their veins. Nothing is too big for them, the stage is never too big.

“They go out and do their job…I’ve just been impressed with the group as a collective for how strong mentally they are.”

As a collective, they’re strong. The bullpen has a 1.0 WAR so far, ranked third in the league. Their 1.75 ERA ranks fifth.

A few individual tweaks and strategies have added to the collective good.

Jake Diekman’s slider

The left-hander came to Oakland from the Kansas City Royals before the trade deadline armed with a sweeping slider that could wipe out both righties and lefties.

One problem, though. Somewhere on his trip from Kansas City to Oakland, Diekman lost his slider.

“I just completely had a brain fart and I forgot how I gripped it,” Diekman said. To be clear, it’s common for pitchers to forget their grips It led to some inconsistencies and a handful of wild outings for the A’s in 2019 — he finished the second half with a 7.1 BB/9 rate, upped from the 5.0 rate he had in the first half in Kansas City.

A GIF posted by the Pitching Ninja on Twitter of Tampa Bay Rays’ right-hander Chaz Roe’s slider triggered Diekman’s memory. He had to get the grip.

“So I just asked Mr. Ninja for it, and he gave it to me,” Diekman said.

the “Mr. Ninja” Diekman is referring to is Rob Friedman, the man behind the ever-popular Pitching Ninja Twitter account that feeds us baseball’s most devastating and filthy pitches that day. Friedman, like most pitching coaches, including A’s Scott Emerson, has a Dropbox file filled with some of baseball stars’ best grips. Felix Hernandez’s changeup? In there. Clayton Kershaw’s curveball? Got it. Roe’s slider? In there.

It didn’t take long for Diekman to pick it up. With a tighter slider, Diekman’s tallied seven strikeouts, four walks, and given up one hit in 4.2 innings.

“When you look at Chaz Roe’s slider, it’s pretty dirty,” Emerson said. “Anytime you can get information from somebody else, I think we’re all disciples from other people.”

Emerson said he encourages his pitchers to find inspiration from the outside to bring back into the clubhouse to collaborate.

“I’m on the Internet, I see the pitch ninja dude all the time with his stuff… I want guys doing their own homework sometimes. If I’m doing everybody’s homework, and they have to take a test, it’s not good. They have to do the homework and take the test.”

Burch Smith’s changeup

We knew about the right-handed reliever’s rising fastball — good because of the high spin rate and his elongated extension.

Smith hasn’t allowed a run in four innings, and collected two wins before August hit. To keep offenses off his fastball, Smith has been impactful down in the zone, too, Emerson said. A changeup he can mix in helps.

“We got a lot of confidence in Burch,” he said. “He has a good fastball, it’s probably better location than I thought. And I really liked his changeup, I think that changeup at the bottom of the zone helps out his spin rate and his elevated fastball.”

Due to some defined roles in the bullpen, Smith hasn’t appeared in a game since July 27 against the Los Angeles Angels. But, he’s becoming a known entity should the A’s find more spots.

T.J. McFarland’s consistency

One of the A’s two left-handed relievers, McFarland has four scoreless innings over five appearances so far. McFarland is drawing tons of soft contact, as indicated by his 0.00 barrel rate.

Yusmeiro Petit’s growth

Even in his 13th season, Petit is tweaking his delivery to maximize his efficacy. During the shutdown, Petit watched pored over film at his home in Miami to see how he could create even more deception. He worked on hiding his pitch a bit longer behind his back.

The A’s have used Petit in various leveraged situations over seven of the first 11 games, and he’s allowed two runs in the last two games.

Joakim Soria’s experience

Soria’s veteran experience was best displayed in a grueling ninth inning in Seattle — a game the A’s eventually won in extras after Soria deftly maneuvered through a jam of his own making.

After loading the bases with one out, Soria brought out his changeup and managed to strike out Jose Marmolejos and Shed Long Jr. to send the game to extras.

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Author: Shayna Rubin