A.J. Puk got some curious stares while walking through the A's clubhouse last week. Teammates couldn't immediately identify the tall, lanky pitcher who had lost 10 pounds, and dramatically trimmed down his trademark locks.
The hair is high-and-tight now, for the first time since the A's drafted him No. 6 overall back in 2016.
"Some people didn't recognize me," Puk said in a Friday video conference. "I told them I came in the Mateo trade."
The front office recently shipped infielder Jorge Mateo to the Padres for a player to be named later. The return hasn't been set yet. The A's would be thrilled to get a dominant left-hander with ace potential like Puk.
Puk's so good he has drawn Randy Johnson comparisons, and they won't cease just because their hair no longer is identical. Their size and stature still is similar. So is the fact that, like Johnson, Puk can flat out bring it.
A's fans saw that during a 10-game cameo in MLB late last year, where he struck out 13 over 11.1 innings. One bit of warning for those who assume we'll see the same Puk in 2020: The A's still had him in shackles, preventing him from throwing his full pitch arsenal.
The A's were careful with a prized prospect who had Tommy John Surgery in April 2018, wanting to avoid a significant setback. He had a minor one during spring training, with some shoulder soreness common to those with UCL repairs. Baseball's layoff due to the coronavirus allowed Puk to fully heal, and the shortened season has removed any inning restrictions that could have come into play over 162 games.
All that means Puk finally is free and clear. He can throw any pitch he wants, from a high-90s fastball to a buckling curve. His innings won't be monitored closely.
Puk is free and clear in every sense.
"Mentally it feels great to know that I'm really feeling good to only worry about getting out there to worry about executing pitches," Puk said. "I'm not worried about any of the rehab stuff. It's a lot better than what it was previously."
That should scare opponents. So should this fact: Puk's arm feels better than ever.
"I was able to clean up some of my mechanics," Puk said. "It was a long grind coming back from Tommy John and then ramping it back up. A lot of times young guys come back and deal with some shoulder stuff, so hopefully that's all in the past and I'm able to go forward."
Once his shoulder felt right and he was able to get on the mound, Puk started sending video to trainers and pitching coach Scott Emerson in search of mechanical refinements.
"My arm angle's just a little bit higher than what it was, and I'm trying to get more direction instead of pulling off and getting my pinching sensation in my shoulder," Puk said. "That has been gone and that has been helpful."
The hair was still long at that point, but Puk knew he wanted to cut some before reporting to the team's summer training camp. He ended up chopping it all off. That's nearly a foot of hair he left with his mom to donate when the time is right.
Puk is restriction-free and ready to attack a shortened season and realize his vast potential in the big leagues.
I would've probably been on an innings limit in a normal situation. Now that it's only 60 games, hopefully that's only 12 starts, with some playoff starts after that. It's a quick year, but it's one I'm looking forward to.
"…Everything's coming together right now and it's a good spot to be in."
A's starter A.J. Puk excited to enter 2020 MLB season restriction-free originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area