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A sleeper who woke up: Zach Putnam, RHP, Chicago White Sox

Entering 2014, Putnam was a 26-year old who would turn 27 in July, with questionable health and declining velocity. Ten months later, he has a successful big league campaign under his belt, a spot in the White Sox pen guaranteed for '15, and a chance to close games.

Zach Putnam
Zach Putnam
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

This arrived in the mailbag in mid-September:

I'm a big White Sox fan but I don't remember hearing much about Zach Putnam. He just got his fifth save and he's pitched well all year. Who is this guy and what kind of role can he handle in the future?---D.W., Vigo County, Indiana

Putnam ended up with six saves for the White Sox, posting a 1.98 ERA in 55 innings with a 46/20 K/BB and 39 hits allowed. His FIP wasn't as good as the ERA at 3.08, but it was still a very credible rookie season. He turned 27 in July so he's not exactly a young prospect, but Putnam does fit with our recent sleeper theme. Let's take a look.

Putnam was a successful player at the University of Michigan, succeeding as both a hitter (.307/.390/.514 with 30 doubles and 19 homers in 459 career college at-bats over three seasons) and as a pitcher (3.36 ERA in 190 innings over three seasons, 174/64 K/BB, 165 hits). Scouts preferred him on the mound and he was seen as a potential second round pick entering 2008, but some shoulder problems and high bonus demands dropped him to the fifth round. He threw just 10 professional innings after signing, but based on the college reports I filed this report for 2009:

The Indians spent $600,000 to sign him, well over slot, but very possibly worth the money. Putnam has a 90-95 MPH sinking fastball, and a diverse arsenal of secondary pitches including a curveball, slider, splitter and changeup. Indeed, some scouts believe that he throws too many pitches and would be better off picking two of them to focus on in addition to the fastball; probably the splitter and slider. Putnam is a physical specimen and was also a prospect as a power-hitting outfielder, but his future is on the mound. He reminds me of Micah Owings in that regard, though of course as an American Leaguer he won’t get many chances to show off his bat. At this point it is unclear if Putnam will start or relieve as a pro. He would advance more quickly in the pen, but it will be tempting to use him as a starter due to his variety of pitches and inning-eating potential. I liked him a lot in college. Grade C+ with higher potential.

The Indians used Putnam in relief in 2009, posting a 4.13 ERA in 57 innings for Double-A Akron with a 57/18 K/BB and 57 hits allowed. The ERA was undistinguished but the ratios were decent and he scouted well, earning a trip to the Arizona Fall League. The report filed for '10:

Putnam was drafted in the fifth round in ’08, from the University of Michigan. He held his own in Double-A one year out of college last season. Although he gave up an 8.76 ERA in the Arizona Fall League, his 18/3 K/BB in 12 innings was very sharp, and there is hope that he could advance to Cleveland sometime in 2010. Putnam features a 90-94 MPH sinking fastball as his key pitch. He also has a good slider, and his third pitch is a split-fingered fastball that he’ll use in changeup situations. He also has a conventional changeup and a slow curve, but he didn’t use those pitches much when pitching in relief. Current indications are that the Indians will move Putnam back to the starting role in ’10, giving him a chance to use his diverse arsenal. I rather like Putnam but want to see how he adjusts to this before going higher than a Grade C+ rating.

Putnam did start seven games for Akron in 2010 but went down with a back injury and was moved to the bullpen on his return, performing well enough to split the season between Double-A and Triple-A Columbus, posting a combined 3.55 ERA with a 65/16 K/BB in 75 innings all told. The scouting reports didn't change much but he was one step closer to the majors. The report for '11 was similar:

Zach Putnam missed some time with a back injury last year, but was healthy and very effective down the stretch in Triple-A. He has an unusually diverse mixture of pitches for a reliever: 90-94 MPH fastball, a splitter, a slider, an occasional curveball and changeup. Although he can start if you really need him to, he maintains his velocity better in shorter outings, making him well- suited for relief. In the old days he’d make a perfect long reliever/swingman, a guy who would make 10 starts and 30 relief appearances a year, but in the days of bullpen specialization, such usage patterns are rare now. He has a lot of competition with other relief prospects in the Tribe farm system, but I like him. Grade C+.

He continued his slow but steady trek through the Indians system in 2011, posting a 3.65 ERA with a 63/23 K/BB in 69 innings for Columbus. He made his big league debut, pitching 10 innings over seven innings with the Tribe, allowing an unsightly 10 hits and five runs, but with an impressive 9/0 K/BB.

At this point he was concentrating on the fastball and splitter as his key pitches, with reduced usage of his slider and change-up and very rare deployment of the slower curve. His fastball velocity was actually down some, as low as 87-88 at times although he could show his old velocity on occasion. The report for '12:

Zach Putnam is the pitching version of Cord Phelps: he’s not spectacular, but he has some skills and adds depth to the major league roster. Putnam has an 88-94 MPH fastball, occasionally a bit faster, and he mixes in a very good splitter. He’ll toss in a slider and straight changeup for good measure, but the fastball/splitter combo is his mainstay. When his command is on he can be quite effective, and notice his 9/0 K/BB ratio in his brief major league action. Putnam won’t close in the majors but he’d be a useful middle man. Grade C.

Putnam was traded from the Indians to the Colorado Rockies for Kevin Slowey in 2012. He pitched credibly for Triple-A Colorado Springs that year (4.15 ERA, 49/27 K/BB in 61 innings, 73 hits, 12 saves) and threw two shutout frames for the Rockies. However, he was now 26 years old, his strikeout rate was down, and reports from the PCL said his velocity continued to slip. I didn't file a report for '13.

The Chicago Cubs claimed him on waivers in November '12. He missed much of the 2013 season with a sore elbow, limiting him to 19 innings for Triple-A Iowa and three difficult frames for the Cubs that resulted in nine hits and seven runs allowed. The Cubs released him last winter and he signed with the White Sox as a free agent.

Entering 2014, Putnam was a 26-year old who would turn 27 in July, with questionable health and declining velocity. Ten months later, he has a successful big league campaign under his belt, a spot in the White Sox pen guaranteed for '15, and a chance to close games, a sleeper who woke up in other words.

Points to consider:

***According to PITCHf/x, Putnam's fastest pitch this year was 92.1 MPH, with both his four-seamer fastball and two-seam sinker averaging about 90, and often in the upper 80s. He hasn't regained his old peak velocity, but was effective nonetheless and was healthy overall this year.

***He relies heavily on his mid-80s splitter. His slider is more of a cutter these days, or at least is usually identified as a cutter by the PITCHf/x and Brooks Baseball systems. Both the splitter and cutter/slider are effective for him.

***Remember the early reports back in college: scouts felt Putnam threw too many different pitches and should concentrate on the splitter and slider. He followed that advice; the slower traditional breaking ball and straight change-up have been junked entirely, or at least he hasn't thrown anything that registers as a curve or change since PITCHf/x started tracking him in 2011.

***Sabermetrically-speaking, a more fascist strikeout rate would be nice, but Putnam is a democratic sort, generating ground balls with the splitter, cutter and sinker, throwing strikes, avoiding home runs. It worked well in 2014. My guess is that he will regress in the future and post ERAs somewhere in the 3.00s, closer to his FIPs, but that should still be enough for him to hold down a job as a solid middle reliever.

zach putnam

Zach Putnam, photo by Mitchell Layton, Getty Images