2/10/2014 2:12 P.M. ET
Purke working on his story in Nationals' system
Health, maintaining delivery are keys to pitching prospect making it to the Majors
By Bernie Pleskoff / MLB.com
There are a number of "back stories" when Washington Nationals left-handed pitching prospect Matt Purke is discussed.
For example, the Texas Rangers selected Purke from Klein (Texas) High School with the 14th overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. At that time, Major League Baseball was overseeing the Rangers' finances. Purke's asking price was deemed unacceptable and was not approved.
Purke elected to attend Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. He had a fabulous freshman year, compiling a 16-0 record in 18 starts. Purke struck out 142 hitters, for an average of 10.9 per nine innings pitched. He walked 34.
Purke suffered shoulder problems in his sophomore season. He was limited to only 11 starts. Purke still managed to compile a 5-1 record with a 1.71 ERA. The opposition hit .187 against him.
The Nats selected Purke with their third-round pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft.
Purke, 23, is ranked No. 7 on the Nationals' Top 20 Prospect list.
I saw Purke pitch in the Arizona Fall League following his selection by Washington. At the time, he had a low arm slot and a somewhat awkward delivery that might have put more stress on his aching shoulder. Purke was more "herky-jerky" than smooth.
In his first full season in the Nats' organization, 2012 at Class A Hagerstown, Purke threw only 15 1/3 innings, starting only three games. He had an ERA of 5.87 and a WHIP of 1.76 in his three starts. Purke's barking shoulder forced him to the sidelines, and ultimately, he had shoulder surgery.
Purke returned to Hagerstown to start the 2013 season. Fresh from his lengthy rehabilitation and recovery, he had six Class A starts, compiling a 1-1 record. Purke had an ERA of 2.48 and showed the type of promise scouts saw back in high school. He struck out an average of 12.7 hitters per nine innings.
Purke's work at Hagerstown earned him a July promotion to Class A Advanced Potomac in the Carolina League. In his 61 innings, he had a 5-3 record and a 4.43 ERA in 12 starts. Purke's strikeout rate dropped to six per nine innings. But the opposition had improved.
Ironically, in his combined 90-inning season, left-handed hitters batted better against Purke than righties. Lefties hit .330 as opposed to .241 for righties.
That was a trend that continued as Purke threw 23 innings in six starts in the 2013 Arizona Fall League. Left-handed hitters batted .400 against Purke in six innings pitched. Right-handers hit only .169 in the remaining 17 innings.
I was able to scout several of those fall outings. When I saw him this past fall, Purke had lost some of the violence in his mechanics that I saw in his previous 2011 Fall League appearance.
At 6-foot-4 and only 205 pounds, Purke's delivery looked much smoother and more refined as he finished with a 3-1 record. He struck out 17, but walked nine, not always having the sharpest control and command of his pitches. However, there were moments when Purke was dominant.
In Arizona, Purke threw his sinking fastball at 89-91 mph. While the velocity wasn't overwhelming, it set up his very solid 78-mph slider very well. It was Purke's slider and split-fingered fastball that induced swings and misses and infield outs. When he was on, he was very effective. I also saw a credible changeup that efficiently altered the hitter's timing.
Purke's future rests on two major issues: First, can he stay healthy? Is the shoulder stable enough to handle the wear and tear of pitching? And, secondly, can he repeat a less violent delivery that causes less strain and stress on his shoulder and elbow? The delivery maintenance can help Purke's control and command, allowing him to use his full repertoire without falling behind in counts. If he falls behind, he has to recover by getting too much of the plate.
Purke is a solid left-handed pitcher who may have a future as either a starter or reliever. But those issues must be answered.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.