Paulk Preps for Big Year

He finished 2006 in Triple-A, but despite a roster spot this season in Binghamton, Paulk knows his future relies on what he makes of his opportunities. With a constantly developing assortment of pitches, the 26-year-old hurler is prime for a successful season. Inside Pitch Magazine caught up with him on Monday afternoon.

In the ever demanding role of the bullpen, arms come at a premium. The pressure faced by middle relievers mounts as more requirements accumulate each season and expectations stretch further. In Binghamton lies a pitcher who toes the rubber with a diverse collection of pitches and a knack for producing in any role assigned to him. Robert Paulk has started games and he has closed them. Yet, his ability to halt rallies when his team necessitates it will dictate his future.

After a successful tenure in the Puerto Rican Winter League, he arrived at camp fresh and ready to display his improvements to the coaches. "I feel like I came into spring in great shape and like ever year I came in ready to pitch. Playing in winter ball meant I was ready to step in and pitch games from the start," he said.

The coaches put him right to work as his first inning pitched in a live game came against big league opposition. From then on, he got a healthy dose of Triple-A hitters where Major League talent is abundant. He squared off against quality hitters which laid out what exactly needed polish within his game.

"Facing that kind of talent made me realize how much I've got to get my pitches down in the zone. It helps that my sinker has been really sharp. I pitched off my fastball. It all helped me build a lot of confidence and I know that if I stay within myself I can be successful," he said.

The coaches worked with Paulk to find consistency in his repertoire and to shorten his at-bats. Naturally, the more consistent he can be, the more strikes he throws, his pitch count will drop. As a stopper out of the bullpen, these characteristics are of notable importance as he matures his ability to pull his team out of jams.

What separates Paulk from many other young relievers is his deep assortment of pitches. He features a fastball, a biting sinker, a hooking curveball, a snapping slider and a developing changeup. It is atypical to find a middle reliever who offers more than three pitches. Altogether, it gives him not only advantages against hitters, but increases his stock in the system.

"I've closed and I have started. I have experienced all the different mentalities. Having four or five different pitches is huge because it makes me more effective, especially if one pitch isn't there that day. Having the deep repertoire allows coaches to move me around. It's a bonus," he explained.

However, his home remains in the seventh and eighth inning role. He is a spark plug who adds instant fire on the mound. While he has history as a closer, he is suited as a set-up man; a role he relishes.

"Nowadays you see guys throwing 100 (miles per hour) closing out games. I don't see myself doing that. I see myself setting those guys up with the stuff I have. I think now closers are the guys who come in and blow gas. I feel like I can be a real good set up man or a two inning guy and bridge the gap," he said.

The more Paulk excels at his current position, the narrower the gap will become between him and the big leagues. Blessed with a warrior's attitude, he can shake off a poor outing in time to dispatch opponents the next day. His short term memory and menu of pitches will be a terrific commodity when he does indeed reach his ultimate goal.

"I know I can pitch. I like being the guy to go out there and slam the door. If I continue to throw strikes, put up my numbers, the opportunities will come. I have stay patient, keep working hard and make sure my game is tight," he said.

Repertoire: Fastball, Curveball, Slider, Changeup

Fastball: His fastball still comes in around 92-94 MPH. He tends to rely on his fastball when the breaking stuff is not on target. He uses his fastball to set up his other pitches. His sinking fastball, which he classifies now as a sinker, breaks hard through the bottom of the strike zone. He uses it primarily in strikeout and men-on-base situations, especially to induce double plays. The sinking fastball has progressed more so than any other pitch this spring.

Curveball: His curveball still has its infamous arching break to it. At speeds in the upper- 70's, he mixes it up with his sinker as his strikeout pitch. Sometimes he'll take just a bit off it to keep hitters that much more off-balance. The curveball is what currently separates him from many other young relief prospects. It treated him well in spot starts but has become perhaps his most effective out pitch.

Slider: His slider has regressed more than any other pitch. It still maintains solid velocity in the 84-87 MPH range, but he admits it is not where he would like it to be. His percentage of sliders per total pitches has dropped through winter ball and on into spring in favor of the sinker.

Changeup: Paulk has become much more comfortable with his changeup over recent months. He has transitioned it from an average complimentary pitch to a real weapon in his arsenal. He keeps it in the low to mid-70's. His precipitous drop in sliders is directly related to the improvement of his changeup – as well as his sinker.

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