Austin Pruitt has so many factors working against him and a multiplicity of reasons that he should not have been selected at all in this year’s MLB Draft, let alone as high as the 9th round where the Rays selected him. Pruitt, a right-hander out of the University of Houston, is old to be beginning his pro career, turning 24 years old at the end of August, and at just 5’10”, 180 (and listed in some places as low as 165 pounds), he hardly looks like a pitcher heading for pro ball. But Pruitt didn’t let any of that stop him, willing himself to arrive at this point. And while his uphill battle continues from here, we certainly can’t count him out.
Pruitt was too small to play for a Division I baseball program coming out of high school, so he ended up at Navarro Junior College in Texas. After a freshman year that didn’t attract much attention, suddenly Pruitt burst onto the scene as a sophomore in 2011, leading all junior college pitchers with a 0.81 ERA to find himself an opportunity at Houston. With the Cougars, once again he faded into the background after a season that saw him manage just a 4.25 ERA with only 57 strikeouts in 91 innings (5.6 K/9). But then once again Pruitt did much better the second time around. This season for Houston, Pruitt went 10-5 with a 2.85 ERA and a 92-24 strikeout to walk ratio in 113.2 innings pitched, completing at least 6 innings in each of his starts and tossing a Conference USA-leading 5 complete games, and this time teams couldn’t ignore him. If the past few years are any indication, Pruitt won’t be too impressive in his pro debut, but once he adapts to his surroundings after that, who knows what kind of heights he can achieve.
Pruitt is never going to be an overpowering pitcher, throwing in the high-80’s with his fastball with the occasional 90. But what he did in his senior season was drastically improve his command, throwing a ton of strikes and consistently locating his fastball down in the zone to force weak contact, especially on the ground. Pruitt doesn’t get much of a downward angle on his pitches, but it didn’t matter because he was just painting the botom of the zone. Then Pruitt adds in his second offering, a curveball that has been effective for him since his high school days. Pruitt has honed it into a true 12-to-6 downer in the mid-70’s with huge late break just as it approaches the hitter, and he can use it both as a chase pitch and for called strikes at the bottom of the strike zone. Pruitt also mixes in the occasional changeup, something you know the Rays will look to further refine. Pruitt makes all his pitches play up from a deceptive delivery that he does an excellent job repeating, just another way he seems to outperform expectations time after time.
You never hear a pitcher who is just 5’10” described as durable, but that is exactly what Pruitt looked like in 2013 as he tossed the five complete games. In pro ball, it seems unlikely that he will stay a starter, but his bulldog mentality and refusal to let any obstacle faze him will serve him extremely well out of the bullpen. Pruitt’s fastball velocity could get a boost, his curveball will be a real weapon, and his deception will make him tough on right-handed hitters, all giving him a chance to succeed in such a role. When you see a player selected as a senior sign about to turn 24, you can’t expect much from him in pro ball. But after Pruitt has defied the odds time after time the last few years, he may be primed to do just that one more time.