Luke Putkonen quietly provided an unsettled Tigers bullpen with some much needed relief in 2013, even if his work was under the radar and seldom made headlines. If you're wondering about the name, John McGeehan wrote this article in December about his Finnish heritage.
Putkonen is a six-foot-six, 27 year old right hander, chosen by the Tigers in the third round of the 2007 amateur player draft out of the University of North Carolina. He made 30 appearances for the Tigers in 2013, striking out 28 hitters in 29 2/3 innings with an ERA of 3.03 and some pretty solid ratios.
The Tigers drafted Putkonen as a starting pitcher, and that's how his pro career started out. After being limited by shoulder trouble in 2008, he rebounded nicely, posting consecutive ERAs of 3.13 and 3.18 in Low-A West MIchigan and High-A Lakeland in 2009 and 2010, respectively. The 2011 season was not as kind to Luke, as he struggled in Lakeland and in Double-A Erie, both in the rotation and in the Lakeland bullpen, posting a combined ERA of 6.44 with a WHIP of 1.58.
Putkonen has pitched mainly in relief since then, and the switch has paid off as he posted a 1.91 ERA in 20 appearances for Toledo last season, with a WHIP of 1.01, striking out just over a batter per inning. The major advance that he made last summer was reducing his hits-per-nine-inning ratio from the 10.8 to 11.1 range where it was for three seasons, down to just 6.0 per nine innings in 2013.
Among the ratios where Putkonen has been effective is his work against both left- and right-handed hitters. In fact, he was more effective against lefties than any of the Tigers' left-handed relievers not named Smyly, holding them to a wOBA of just .257. Thanks to a steady diet of curves and change ups that he throws to left-handers, only Smyly and Benoit fared better against lefty hitters among Tiger relievers in 2013.
Keys to success
In order to remain successful in the majors, Putkonen needs to avoid the mistake pitches over the plate. His strikeout and walk ratios are good enough. The home run ball was a substantial part of his weakness in 2013.
Outlook for 2014
Putkonen goes into spring training, probably with an edge over much of the competition for one of the final bullpen spots this season as a middle or long reliever. Jose Ortega and Evan Reed are his primary competition, with Melvin Mercedes in the distance.