Blue Jays’ Ryan Borucki rewriting career narrative in the bullpen

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Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ryan Borucki throws. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

When Ryan Borucki was starting regularly for the Toronto Blue Jays back in 2018, pitching to a 3.87 ERA over an auspicious 17-game MLB debut, he wanted things moving quickly.

He averaged 21.2 seconds between pitches, the 11th-fastest tempo across MLB. The way he saw it, you’d rather make the batter work at your pace than vice versa. So, as soon as he got the ball back from his catcher, Borucki was already setting his feet beneath him, holding that glove up to his face, peering past leather for a sign.

But times change. Here’s Borucki now, thrust into a high-leverage relief role out of Toronto’s bullpen for a variety of reasons we’ll get to later, taking the ball back after a pitch and going for a stroll:

You see those two breaths he took? There’s a reason for that. Once one of baseball’s quickest workers, nowadays Borucki’s trying to find ways to slow things down.

“Coming out of the bullpen, every pitch matters. You make one mistake and that could be the game,” he says. “So, I’m taking a couple extra breaths before each pitch, and really focusing pitch-to-pitch instead of thinking three or four hitters ahead as a starter.”

It’s just one of the many adjustments Borucki’s trying to make on the fly this season as he transitions into a new role with precious little margin for error. A start-to-start routine he developed over the eight years since he was drafted is gone. The mental approach he carried into starts is, too. He’s preparing and recovering differently; he’s selecting pitches and sequencing them unlike he ever has before; he’s stressing his arm in unusual ways.

And every time he takes the mound to figure out if any of these changes are working for him or not, he begins at the middle of a tight rope. One mistake could be the game.

“As a starter, you do have a little more leeway,” says Borucki’s pitching coach, Pete Walker. “You warm up differently. Your preparation prior to the game is different. As a reliever, things happen quicker. But I think Borucki’s looked outstanding, to be honest with you. His stuff’s electric. His slider-cutter is as good as I’ve ever seen it. He’s really taken to the opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity that presented itself because the Blue Jays have an unusual-in-the-recent-history-of-this-franchise dilemma — too many promising arms and not enough innings to go around. In a normal season, Borucki would be working as a starter at triple-A — building innings, continuing his development, and patiently waiting for an opening to materialize in the big-league rotation.

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But thanks to a 60-game schedule, the presence of fellow young starters Anthony Kay and Thomas Hatch, and a plain need for high-leverage left-handed relief, Borucki’s best current fit on the Blue Jays is entering tight games in the sixth or seventh inning to chew up the heart of the opposition’s order.

It’s literally something he’s never done before. His appearance last week against Atlanta, in which Borucki took over in the seventh with one out and a one-run lead, was his first time entering a game he didn’t know he was going to pitch in.

It might not seem like a big deal if you’ve never been in his cleats. But to go from a starter’s deliberate and methodical routine to sitting in the bullpen maintaining a constant state of readiness isn’t as easy as it appears.

“You get that adrenaline right when you get that call that you’re going in,” Borucki says. “It’s a really different personality in the pen. When I’m a starter, I’m more laid back, navigating through the game. In the pen it’s about going in and attacking guys with my best stuff.”

So far that’s led to five scoreless innings in which Borucki’s surrendered just a hit and two walks. He has struck out 11 of 18 batters faced, generating a 45.2 per cent whiff rate. Of the five balls he allowed to be put in play, only one had an exit velocity over 90 mph. He’s throwing all of his pitches nearly three clicks faster than he did as a starter, and he’s locating them to either side of the plate.

Left-handed hitting hasn’t had a chance. Here’s Borucki dotting a 95-mph fastball on the outside black (with a Danny Jansen receiving assist) to Freddie Freeman:

Then getting the four-time all-star to whiff at a cutter thrown in the same lane:

In a matter of weeks, Borucki has rewritten his career narrative. Before the season began, he was a promising-yet-unlucky starter hard done by repeated injuries to his throwing arm. Now, he’s Andrew Miller Lite.

“I’m so happy for him. He’s worked so hard and has had some unfortunate health hurdles that he’s overcome,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins says. “He’s been dominant against everyone that he’s faced. He’s really fared well. A lot of swing and miss. And the power to his fastball — it doesn’t happen for everyone when you put them into a bullpen role and the stuff ticks up a bit. But it has certainly happened for him.”

Borucki will tell you the roots of his velocity increase are in his off-season conditioning work and some mechanical fine tuning completed throughout MLB’s shutdown over Zoom sessions with Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann. But working in shorter outings and knowing he can put more effort behind each pitch doesn’t hurt, either. It’s just another adjustment.

“Mentality-wise, [the bullpen] is way different for me. I’m more of a finesse pitcher as a starter, trying to get ground balls,” Borucki says. “Now, I’m coming in with my best stuff right from the get-go. It’s a completely different feeling.”

A.J. Cole, Borucki’s teammate, has been there. Well, sort of. He was drafted as a starter and given a $2-million signing bonus in 2010 by the Washington Nationals. Soon after, Cole became a consensus top-100 MLB prospect — even reaching the top-30 on Baseball Prospectus’s pre-2015 rankings.

But by 2018 he’d been hit around to the tune of a 5.48 ERA over his first 19 MLB starts, designated for assignment by Washington, and acquired by the New York Yankees, who converted him to a full-time bullpen role. He pitched mostly when the Yankees were trailing or leading with a significant cushion, using the durability he’d built up as a starter to help chew up innings.

“Starters, you’re on a routine. You’re every five days,” Cole says. “And then you get thrown off of it being in the pen. It’s a, ‘Hey, you’re up today but we don’t know if you’re going in’ type of thing. It’s completely different. You have to change your mindset.”

In the Blue Jays’ bullpen, Cole is surrounded by young pitchers going through the same thing. Borucki, Kay, Hatch, and Jordan Romano are all one-time starters now making the transition — some temporarily, some permanently.

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Romano has been a revelation, and it’s clear he’s in a high-leverage role for good. Hatch and Kay are staying relatively stretched out, lest the team run into rotation trouble later this summer. Borucki will remain in the bullpen for the remainder of the season, but could revisit starting in 2021 if the opportunity is there.

While their futures may vary, the consistency of their present is that they’ve all had to learn to work under extreme pressure. If you order the 11 pitchers currently in Toronto’s bullpen by FanGraphs leverage index, you find Romano has faced the most significant leverage upon entering games of anyone. Borucki and Hatch are both in the top five. That’s the difference between them and Cole — he got to make his bullpen transition in less meaningful spots. Toronto’s young arms haven’t had the same luxury.

“When I was switched over it was still almost like I was a starter. I would go two innings, then have three days off, throw two,” Cole says. “Not like these guys, where it’s, ‘Oh, hey, high leverage situation — get in there.’ They’re not clean innings. It’s kind of cool to see that. I’m really impressed with them.”

Take Sunday, when Borucki entered a tied game at Fenway Park in the seventh inning, threw a first-pitch strike, and never looked back. He got Mitch Moreland to strike out looking at a cutter right over the plate. Then he got Christian Vazquez to whiff on one off the plate. Finally, Borucki sent Kevin Pillar swimming after another down-and-in cutter, never breaking stride in his follow-through as he walked off the mound toward the dugout.

Is that actually a cutter, though? Borucki says it is, and since he’s the one throwing it he gets to name it, too. But it certainly looks real slider-ish, especially when he’s using it to attack the back feet of right-handed hitters like Vazquez and Pillar.

He’s certainly throwing it harder than his previous slider, averaging nearly 87 mph with the pitch this season versus 82 in 2018. And while it’s featuring nearly identical break, it’s dropping less, moving vertically an average of 32.6 inches compared to 39.3 in 2018.

Whatever it is, it’s effective. Opposition hitters have put it in play only once this season, and Borucki has used it to finish seven of his 11 strikeouts. In 2018, when Borucki struck out 67 MLB hitters, he used a slider as his out pitch only 18 times.

Back then, Borucki’s sequencing was designed to set up his changeup, which was his best pitch. And he says it still is. He’s just barely needed it this season.

In his Wednesday outing against the Miami Marlins, he threw it just three times. Sunday, only twice. During a high-leverage appearance on August 5, protecting a one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh against a dangerous Atlanta lineup, he used it only once. And this was the result:

“It’s a little different in relief. Usually guys only come with two [pitches.] But the changeup’s always been a pitch for me that, I’m not saying it came easily, but I usually have it there,” Borucki says. “It was usually the cutter-slider I had to work on. But it’s been great. It’s given me a lot of confidence, especially in the cutter.

“I’ve really worked really hard on trying to get that feel for it. And the last couple starts, it’s been coming out the way I want it to. So, I’ve really been happy with the results that I’ve had.”

Perhaps you noticed Borucki’s still calling his outings “starts” there. He’s sometimes still referring to his cutter as a slider, too. Old habits die hard. But so far this season for Borucki, new ones have come quick.

“It’s been really fun going out there. It’s just best man wins,” he says. “Definitely, when your name gets called, you get that rush coming through you, like, ‘OK, it’s time to get ready to go to battle.’ It’s a feeling I’m not used to. It’s a lot different for me. But so far, so good.”

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