Baseball isn’t exactly the port to excel in when you live up north. Major League Baseball teams have spring training in the south because of the weather and staying away from freezing temperatures and snow. In the south, you can play and practice the game year around.
That doesn’t mean you can’t find terrific ball players from up north, but sometimes it means they may be a little rawer without as much time on the diamond.
All of this is part of the story of A.J. Puk and Buddy Reed.
“I think (Buddy) and A.J are very similar,” Florida Baseball head coach Kevin O’Sullivan told the media Thursday. “Two kids from the north that came down with a ton of potential. I think it’s been a really unique story. “You know it has been a very short time, just two and a half years, and they’ve made all these strides. They have similar stories.”
Reed’s improvement at the plate was pretty remarkable between his first and second year on campus. He started 51 games in 2014 and batted .244 with no triples and no home runs and only six RBI. In 2015 those numbers jumped to .305 with five triples, four homeruns, and 47 RBI.
“Buddy, where he is now offensively to where he was two years ago is quite remarkable,” O’Sullivan said. “But that’s what you do. You try and recruit kids that are athletic and in an environment like this where the weather is better they can be outside 12 months out of the year and you never know what you’ve got. He’s worked awfully hard. This has not been easy or guaranteed. He’s worked his tail off to put himself in a good position and he’s turned out to be a very good player for us.”
O’Sullivan wasn’t assured that it was going to work out this way for the preseason All-SEC and All-American candidate.
“I didn’t know it… I was hoping,” he said. “You never really know how kids are going to pan out 2-3 years down the road. I was hoping this would work out the way it did. By no means did I believe he would be this type of prospect. You hope and all the credit goes to him, he’s worked his tail off. In this game you have to put a lot of work in. I expect him to have a big year as well.”
A.J. Puk has a lot of the same story. The giant sized pitcher is one of the most feared now in college baseball. While his statistics in year one and two are pretty similar, he was thrown into much more difficult situations as a sophomore than as a freshman. With less overall appearances as a sophomore, 17 compared to 20, Puk had nine wins as a sophomore and four as a freshman. He also tallied 104 strike outs in just 78 innings pitched as a sophomore.
“The interesting thing with his recruitment, you guys know he’s a first baseman as well,” O’Sullivan said of Puk. “He has a really smooth swing. When we went through the recruiting part of it, the (pitching) delivery wasn’t quite in sync, but the swing was. You kind of hoped that the coordination he had would translate to the pitching side of things and it has. I think maybe focusing on the pitching side of things and not hitting has helped elevate him to this point pitching wise.
“The whole thing in pitching is repeating the delivery. He’s being able to repeat his delivery which in turn means he can repeat pitches. The development of his slider and changeup has been remarkable.”
O’Sullivan expects a bigger year out of his preseason All-SEC candidate.
“He’s kind of grown into his body,” Florida’s head man said. “It takes those guys that are taller a little longer to get everything in sync. He’s kind of put it together He understands his delivery better. He’s able to make adjustments from pitch to pitch better. His slider and changeup, he has as good of command of those two pitches since he’s been here.
Puk is the kind of player that usually doesn’t show up in the college ranks and he’s never had one quite like him.
“He’s a 6-7, 6-8 lefty throwing 96 or 97 (miles per hour)… those guys get paid an awful lot of money out of high school for throwing strikes…. left handers period, but especially a guy with that size.”
That smooth and natural swing hasn’t gone unused with the Gators. As a freshman he played a bit at first base and had 63 at-bats, batted .222, and had eight RBI. His at-bats declined dramatically as a sophomore when he was used as a pitcher more even though his hitting percentage increased to .261.
O’Sullivan likes what Puk is doing on the mound so getting him in the hitters circle isn’t something he is going to stress. All of that despite Puk being a guy that can hit for power.
“I teased him the other day,” O’Sullivan said. “He may leave here without hitting a home run in a real game. He has more raw power than anyone on our club. Maybe we’ll sneak him for an at-bat or two as the season goes on. But, I’m real pleased with where he is at pitching wise for sure.”
And so the Gators will rely on two teammates, brothers if you will, to help lead this nationally ranked number one team against Florida Gulf Coast this weekend in the season opening series. And O’Sullivan expects them to perform better than we have already seen.