AJ Blubaugh aspired to play professional baseball for as long as he can remember. But at times, the right-handed pitcher didn’t know if that dream would ever come to fruition.
He received little college recruiting interest out of high school and pitched four innings in his first year with the Milwaukee Panthers in 2020. The adversity motivated Blubaugh.
Blubaugh’s hard work and dedication eventually paid off. He blossomed into an MLB draft prospect throughout his junior season with the Panthers. He then thrived in eight appearances in the Cape Cod League last summer. His development and performance led to the Houston Astros selecting Blubaugh in the seventh round of the 2022 draft.
The last six months have been a whirlwind for Blubaugh, who is now preparing for his first spring training as a professional pitcher.
“I am living the dream,” Blubaugh said. “As a kid, you grow up and have this dream in mind of what it is going to be like, and now I’m living it. It is more than I even dreamed of.”
Blubaugh’s development and rise as a pitching prospect are noteworthy. He was a lightly recruited prospect out of the Ohio high school ranks, receiving his lone Division I college baseball offer from Milwaukee.
The lack of college interest motivated Blubaugh. He joined the Panthers in fall 2019 and instantly dedicated himself to adding strength to his frame and improving his craft on the mound.
Blubaugh made steady progress in his three years at Milwaukee. He posted a 3.25 ERA with 51 strikeouts, 16 walks allowed and six saves in 52 2/3 innings between the starting rotation and closer role in 2022. His performance earned him his second consecutive Horizon League Relief Pitcher of the Year award.
Blubaugh credits Milwaukee’s coaching staff, especially pitching coach Cory Bigler, for his evolution as a pitcher during college.
“The biggest thing was they believed in me before really anyone else did,” Blubaugh said. “I was so underrecruited going into college that for them to give me a chance, believe in me and help me grow, it gave me more confidence than I had.”
After his junior season at Milwaukee, Blubaugh pitched 9 1/3 scoreless innings in the Cape Cod League last summer. The experience allowed him to compete against high-caliber college hitters as he awaited the draft.
The Astros drafted Blubaugh with the 223rd overall pick. He started in Rookie ball, making three appearances, before his promotion to Class A Fayetteville.
In the Carolina League, Blubaugh earned Pitcher of the Month after dominating opposing hitters in two appearances in September. He recorded a 2-0 record with a 0.90 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 10 innings.
Blubaugh credits his late-season success to his confidence in his slider and curveball, which greatly improved once he joined the Astros system. In his first pro season, he went 2-1 with a 4.34 ERA, 24 strikeouts and six walks allowed in 18 2/3 innings.
“I didn’t even know Pitcher of the Month was a thing, so I didn’t expect it,” Blubaugh said. “I always expect success because I am really confident as a pitcher, but for that to happen was awesome.”
Following the season, Blubaugh took a break from pitching after tossing a career-high in innings in 2022. He started his throwing program just over a month ago and recently began throwing bullpen sessions in preparation for spring training and his first full season of pro baseball.
The Astros, who won the World Series last season, conduct spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida. Blubaugh is awaiting details on his report date. He is looking forward to attending his first spring training and learning from the experienced players in the Astros camp.
The Astros view Blubaugh as a starting pitcher. He has approached the game with the proper mindset that will allow him to achieve his immediate goals and chase his dream of playing in the major leagues one day. He figures to start this season at Class A Fayetteville.
“Ever since I started playing baseball as far back as I can remember, my dream has always been to play at the highest level of baseball as possible,” Blubaugh said. “As long as I keep that motivation, eventually, I can reach that dream of making it all the way. I have a lot of motivation. I know I have to really work hard to make it happen.”
Read an in-depth MLB draft profile on AJ Blubaugh here.
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for eight years. He has interviewed 433 of the top draft prospects in that period, including four No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today, MLB.com, The Arizona Republic and The Dallas Morning News, have quoted his work, while he has appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.