June 22, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Luke Putkonen (36) pitches in the ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park. Detroit won 10-3. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Flying Low; Detroit Tiger Reliever Luke Putkonen


Sep 18, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Luke Putkonen (36) pitches in the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Tiger relief pitcher Luke Putkonen is easy to overlook.

At age 27, he’s too old to be a young phenom. Unlike some of his fellow relievers in the Tiger bullpen, he’s not going to the Hall of Fame, doesn’t possess a 100 mph fastball, and has never pitched for the New York Yankees. And as far as can be determined, he’s never kissed a baseball in competition.

In fact, owing to sporadic ineffectiveness, Putkonen has never even spent an entire season in the major leagues. As recently as 2011, pitching exclusively at Class A Lakeland and Double A Erie, he posted stratospheric ERA’s of 5.54 and 7.57, respectively. Finally promoted to the big club in 2012, he appeared in only twelve games, and spent the rest of the year pitching unspectacularly in Toledo.

Entering 2013, the 6’6″, 215 lb. former North Carolina Tar Heel was definitely flying under the radar. But Putkonen, who signed with the Tigers in 2007, doggedly refined his craft throughout the season and turned in his finest year as a professional. As a result, he’s now an odds-on-favorite to begin the year as one of the right-handed relief pitchers in new manager Brad Ausmus‘s bullpen.

Let’s take a look at his 2013 performance as a Tiger (bolded) and his accompanying 2013 Toledo Mud Hen numbers in parentheses:

W-L
1-3 (2-0)

ERA
3.03 (1.91)

IP
29.2 (37.2)

Hits
30 (25)

SO
28 (38)

Avg. Against
.261 (.185)

WHIP
1.31 (1.01)

K/9
8.5 (9.1)

BB/9
2.7 (3.1)

The numbers reflect a very solid 2013 for Putkonen, both at the major league and Triple A levels, and were a welcome development for the Tigers’ beleagured bullpen. His 3.03 ERA quietly placed him behind only Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly among non-starters and earned him a spot on the Tiger postseason ALDS roster.

Repertoire
The lanky Putkonen is a power pitcher who throws fastballs about two-thirds of the time. He primarily relies upon a four-seamer, while mixing in an occasional sinker. Both average around 94 mph, but he can touch 96-97 at times.

He uses two offspeed pitches–a 79 mph knuckle-curve, which he throws around 20% of the time, and a splitter, which averages about 85 mph and is thrown once every eight pitches or so.

In 2013, it appears Putkonen shelved his standard curveball for the knuckle-curve. To some degree that may explain his recent success and it should be intriguing to see if he can continue to develop it as 2014 unfolds.

Tendencies
Although necessarily drawn from Putkonen’s small sample of 45.2 innings pitched at the major league level in 2012-13, two tentative conclusions emerge.

The first is that he seems to be much more comfortable pitching at Comerica Park than on the road. This is exemplified by his 1.86 ERA at home versus a 4.44 at other venues.

The second tendency is somewhat surprising, in that he has fared better overall against left-handed hitters (2.05 ERA, 1.40 WHIP) than he has against right-handers (4.56 ERA, 1.48 WHIP), even though he throws from the right side.

Moreover, all four home runs he has yielded as a major leaguer have been to right-hand hitters.

This departure from the norm may dissolve with greater exposure around the league. At present, though, it argues for Putkonen’s inclusion on a bullpen staff that as currently constructed appears to be light on proven left-handers.

Summary
The name Putkonen (pronounced “Putt-KOH’-nen” in this case) is Finnish, and as such this player is of special interest to the many loyal Tiger fans of Finnish descent in the Upper Peninsula and across the state. Given the choice, those folks would probably pronounce his name differently, though, as “PUTT’-koh-nen”, in keeping with the traditional Finnish pronunciation. However you choose to pronounce it, though, this quiet right-hander from Winfield, Illinois, clearly blossomed in 2013, just in time to secure a spot in a wobbly Tiger bullpen.

But if he continues to develop and becomes a fixture in the late innings for Detroit, you probably won’t hear much chatter about it from Putkonen. Among the world’s most introverted people, Finns are famous for their reluctance to engage in conversation with strangers.

Hence the joke, “Did you hear about the Finnish extrovert? He stares at your shoes.”

All that aside, though, Luke Putkonen built a strong case for himself in 2013, and if he progresses along the same lines in 2014, he’ll quickly become a valued, high-profile member of the Detroit Tiger bullpen.

Just don’t expect him to talk about it much.

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