Austin Pruitt: Successfully Adjusting

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Being in the same minor league system as top prospects like Blake Snell, Taylor Guerrieri, Jacob Faria and Brent Honeywell, it could be easy for a pitcher to have trouble gaining some notoriety. One easy way to stand out could be striking out 22 batters in your first two Triple-A starts, like right-hander Austin Pruitt did this season.

But Pruitt’s strong start in Triple-A shouldn’t be too much of a surprise after all of the success he has had at each point in his career.

Pruitt went undrafted out of high school and went to Navarro College for junior college. His second season with Navarro, the team won the 2011 Junior College World Series.

“Being at JuCo, man, I had a great time there,” Pruitt said. “It was probably the best baseball years of my life. Great group of guys.”

Again, Pruitt was undrafted and went to the University of Houston for his final two seasons of eligibility.

“U of H was good,” he said. “My first year we had 56 games and only won 18, so it was a rough year.”

But his second season with the Cougars was much better. In 2013 Pruitt was a semifinalist for the Gregg Olson Award for Breakout Player of the Year and led the team with 10 wins, a 2.55 ERA and 92 strikeouts.

This time Pruitt caught the Rays’ eyes, and was selected in the ninth round of the 2013 draft.

He’s taken the past two seasons one level at a time, taking one full season at each High-A, and at Double-A. But he has never had the high strikeout rate, with a career strikeouts per nine innings pitched rate of 6.73 coming into 2016.

Because he also has a great career groundout per flyout rate of 1.16, Pruitt has always been profiled as a groundball pitcher. So his high strikeout total (up to 33 through five starts) was a bit of a surprise this season.

“I’ll pitch to contact, without question,” Pruitt said. “Sometimes they’re groundballs, sometimes they’re not. But [the strikeouts], that’s completely abnormal. I don’t know where that came from. But it’s really cool. I’m just executing, that’s all.”

His newfound affinity for strikeouts may be out of the ordinary, but the 26-year-old believes he can’t accept all of the glory.

“It’s really just execution and some great game managing behind the plate,” he said. “[Luke] Maile caught my first two starts, and he’s done a great job. Then [Mayo] Acosta caught my third and [Carlos] Corporan caught my fourth, but they’ve all done a great job.”

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Pruitt maintains that this superior game calling and executing his pitches is the true reason behind his additional success this season. He mixed three pitches throughout college, with a fastball, curveball and changeup, so he feels very comfortable with those pitches. But it’s the new one that he’s relying on more.

“My cutter is the newest pitch,” he said. “I learned it in the Florida State League a few years ago and used it a bit last year. It’s been a secondary pitch, but I’m throwing it quite a bit this year. It’s an out pitch for sure. I’ve got a lot more empty swings from it, which has been nice.”

Another factor in his success could be a better comfort level. This is his first Triple-A action, and sometimes it can take players a month or so to adjust to the higher level of play. Pruitt hasn’t had that problem.

“There hasn’t been a whole lot to adjust,” he said. “I’d say Double-A to Triple-A is pretty close, but now you get some big leaguers and ex-big leaguers you have to face.”

What may not be the biggest change, but perhaps the most noticeable to the naked eye, is Pruitt’s changed facial hair. For the past two seasons Pruitt has rocked a full mustache, a bit of a throwback. This season, he has a full beard.

“Whenever we couldn’t have a beard, I would grow a mustache because we could have one,” Pruitt said. “I grew a pretty good mustache, I feel like. But now we don’t have to shave. The first year at U of H, our coach didn’t allow us facial hair, but then he loosened up and I grew out the beard.”

But don’t rush to judgement about a connection between Pruitt’s facial hair and success on the mound. From junior college to Triple-A, Pruitt has had some form of success at every level. His first professional season he earned a promotion from Short-Season to Class-A. His second season of pro ball, Pruitt led the High-A Charlotte Stone Crabs with nine wins and 106 strikeouts. Then last season he led Double-A Montgomery with 10 wins, and even pitched a three-hit complete game shutout with five strikeouts and no walks in just 90 pitches.

If Pruitt figured out some secret to improving enough to have success at each level, he can’t put his finger on it, though.

“You just have to adjust,” he said. “You have to learn the game and learn the ropes of each level and how to get people out. It’s kind of the same thing playing at each level: you have to execute pitches and follow your game plan, know the hitters and how they’ve been swinging and stuff. Catchers like we have now know that and have a good game plan coming into the game, so it’s a lot easier to listen to those guys. But yeah, it’s all about executing pitches.”

Bulls fans will have to wait to see how good Pruitt’s season is overall, but the early returns and his track record suggest that this great start is just the beginning of another good year.

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