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A.J. Blubaugh rides quick ascent in Astros system to AFL

Houston Astros' A.J. Blubaugh
A.J. Blubaugh | Credit: Greenfly

As one of the fastest rising arms in the Houston Astros system, A.J. Blubaugh pushed the organization’s hand further this fall. Blubaugh suffered no setbacks and no injuries in his first full season, but he found himself in the Arizona Fall League to round out the year, continuing to stack up a career high in innings.

The Astros never gave Blubaugh an exact reason for his assignment. He accumulated 100 innings in 2023, smashing his total of 80.1 in 2022. Yet the organization extended his season.

“They just said, ‘Congrats on the opportunity,’” Blubaugh said. “That’s the way I looked at it. I feel like the reason I’m here could be 100 different things, but I’m here right now. I can only control what I can control, and that’s hopefully staying healthy, just doing my best every time I go out there.”

In the AFL, organizations are designated two starting pitchers. The Astros chose Tyler Guilfoil and Jaime Melendez, leaving Blubaugh to pitch in relief every Thursday behind Guilfoil.

Blubaugh started 12 of his 26 appearances between High-A Asheville and Double-A Corpus Christi this past season. Houston continued to develop him as a starting pitcher after he joined the rotation in his final season at Milwaukee following 31.1 innings as a reliever the prior two year.

“It’s a little different, but I just went back to my college roots,” Blubaugh said. “It’s still familiar territory for the most part, and I feel very comfortable in those situations. And the adrenaline rush doesn’t hurt, so that’s nice.”

Houston Astros' A.J. Blubaugh

A.J. Blubaugh | Credit: Greenfly

Blubaugh has controlled pressure well. He has entered games without a clean slate, pitching around inherited messes for a 3.00 ERA in nine innings thus far. In those four outings, the righty yielded nine hits, issued three walks and struck out 13 batters, putting himself in conversation for the Fall Stars Game.

The shorter outings offered Blubaugh to reach back and put more velocity on his pitches. He touched 97 mph on his fastball this past season, doing it again in the Fall League. He has also upped his average velocity to 94 mph with more of his heaters registering at 96 mph.

In the same process, Blubaugh has continued to develop his cutter, which he added to his arsenal at the end of the regular season.

“The strides that I’ve made are pretty nice, but I still have a long way to go from where I want to be,” said Blubaugh, who is still seeing swings and misses with his cutter.

Blubaugh knows the long process of developing a pitch well. He blew up his changeup at the start of the season, taking four or five months to get it back on track. From execution to shape, the intricacies of a new pitch gave him an extensive look at the complexities of his job.

“Pitching is really hard, but the good thing about pitching is hitting is harder,” Blubaugh chuckled. “I’m glad I’m on this side of the ball.”

Off the field, Blubaugh put his attention in the weight room and the kitchen. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound hurler wants to add 10-15 pounds in order to hold his velocity deeper into outings and improve his overall recovery process.

With the AFL season nearing a close, Blubaugh’s year outlived that of his organization. He pitched through two levels and reached a coveted opportunity to build off a strong first full season in professional baseball.

“Playing longer than the Astros this season, which I wish we weren’t, I wish they were still going, it’s pretty cool to say I’m playing baseball well into October and going to be into November,” Blubaugh said.

Houston Astros' A.J. Blubaugh

A.J. Blubaugh | Credit: Mansfield

Move over Chas McCormick

Blubaugh started as the varsity point guard his freshman year at Clear Fork High School in Bellville, Ohio. He stood 5-foot-3, 100 pounds “soaking wet,” but then hit a growth spurt over the next three years, gaining a foot to his height and 50 pounds to his frame.

Moving to the post, Blubaugh carried his old tricks to a new position. He kept his ball handling skills and passing ability to average 12.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game in his senior season.

“I’m basically like a combination of the smallest NBA guy you can think of and Nikola Jokić,” Blubaugh chuckled. “Jokić is obviously a little better, but just put it in the high school version.”

The Juggler

In the “pitcher only” life, Blubaugh got bored. He didn’t play everyday at the end of his high school career or in college, which pushed him to find a hobby. So he picked up juggling.

Blubaugh didn’t excel at first, which drove him to excel at his new-found pastime. He went home and practiced, learning a few tricks on how to go behind his back and under his legs. He built up the feel to add a fourth object into the mix and juggled three different-sized objects in a weight, a bag of chips and a baseball.

“There’s a lot of ways to just pass time,” Blubaugh said. “I’ve also done just a baseball, a basketball and a pen. Three random objects that aren’t too heavy or too big, and I feel like I can get the job done.”

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