Sportsnet

Rogers Media

Breakout season has Blue Jays’ Borucki closer than ever to MLB level

TORONTO — Toronto Blue Jays minor-league starters have a lot of responsibilities. You’ve got to pitch your starts — that’s pretty important. But you also have to bring the same zeal to the many tasks outside your outings, like video work, strategy sessions, strength and conditioning, pitch refinement with roaming coordinators, cerebral discussions with mental performance coaches, and everything in between.

Perhaps one of the least stimulating tasks is pitch charting. The game before your start, you have to track the outing of the starter who pitches ahead of you in the rotation, taking note of balls and strikes, pitch selection, location, results, everything. It can be monotonous. But some guys really get into it.

Like Ryan Borucki. The 23-year-old left-hander pitched behind Thomas Pannone — another 23-year-old left-hander — at double-A New Hampshire for five weeks late in 2017. Pannone features a wicked breaking ball, a pitch Borucki has struggled to cultivate since he turned pro in 2012, but finally began to find success with last season.

Borucki, a self-professed visual learner, relished the opportunity to sharply hone in on his teammate’s outing every five days. He focused on the way Pannone attacked different hitters each time through the order, and watched closely for subtle details that he could apply to his own game.

It wasn’t uncommon to find Borucki intently observing his teammates’ bullpen sessions, either. When he was with the Dunedin Blue Jays, Borucki spent a lot of time watching Jordan Romano (who throws a pretty good breaking ball himself), trying to absorb any information he could.

“I try to watch everybody’s bullpen, everybody’s sides. It helps me a lot,” Borucki says. “My slider has always been such a stress for me. For the last five years, I’ve never been able to throw a breaking ball that was consistent. And, last year, it finally came.”

The rapid progression of that third pitch — to go along with Borucki’s low-to-mid 90s fastball and change-up — was what allowed the left-hander to end 2017 with a dozen strong outings, pitching to a 2.08 ERA over 78 innings from the beginning of July onward while earning promotions to double- and triple-A as he went.

Next week, he’ll report to spring training in Dunedin as one of Toronto’s top pitching prospects, and likely its closest to the majors. He’ll almost certainly begin 2018 in triple-A atop the Buffalo Bisons staff. But if the Blue Jays have a rotation need at any point this season, and Borucki’s continuing to pitch effectively, the 23-year-old’s name will be one of the first considered for a call-up.

“To me, [Borucki] is ready now — it’s just a matter of an opportunity,” Vince Horsman, Borucki’s double-A pitching coach, told Shi Davidi in September. “There’s no more, ‘I’ve got to work on this part of my game, or that part of my game.’ It’s pretty much well-rounded. He’s very aware of what he’s trying to do, the running game, all the other nuances of it. He’s just waiting now.”

The numbers back it up. Across three levels in 2017, Borucki pitched to a 2.93 ERA over 150.1 innings — a career-high. He put up 9.4 K/9, allowed only seven home runs, and posted an excellent 157:36 K:BB ratio. Opposition batters hit.236/.293/.341 against him, and left-handed hitters didn’t stand a chance, batting just .194/.277/.266. Borucki allowed only nine extra-base hits to lefties all season.

That’s where the new slider made the biggest difference. While Borucki has always felt comfortable keeping batters off balance with his fastball and plus change-up, he lacked a third pitch he could use to put advanced hitters — especially left-handers — away. The slider does just that, keeping batters off his fastball and making his change-up that much more difficult to guard against.

“It’s built into a pitch that I can really rely on,” Borucki says. “I was so happy to finally get over that hump. That’s been my downfall my whole career — injuries and not having a breaking ball. And then to finally have scratched both those off — knock on wood for the injury part — is really a nice feeling to have.”

Borucki’s improved health has been crucial. He missed the entire 2013 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, and nearly all of 2015 due to shoulder and elbow problems. Entering 2016, Borucki had never thrown more than 57 innings in a season despite being drafted in 2012.

But he threw 135.2 in 2016, and then 150.1 in 2017, as he finally put his injury issues behind him. This winter he’s been working out at Illinois Bone and Joint Institute in Chicago, paying particular attention to building shoulder strength and mobility.

“My injuries were just kind of a freak thing. In high school, I grew a lot really fast and my body wasn’t ready to throw hard. And that’s when I tore my elbow,” says Borucki, who weighed only 155-lbs when he was drafted and has put on more than 20-lbs since. “And then in 2015, I had some debris in the back of my elbow. It got caught and they had to clean it up. I feel like it was just bad luck. There wasn’t anything I could’ve done.”

Borucki’s health didn’t just keep him off the field, it affected his development as a pitcher. He made changes to his delivery to compensate for the injuries in 2016, and it backfired meteorically, as Borucki put up a 14.40 ERA over his first six starts at high-A.

He was quickly demoted to class-A Lansing, where the pitching coach at the time, Jeff Ware, returned him to his prior mechanics with some minor tweaks to improve Borucki’s deception and address his habit of showing hitters the ball early in his wind-up.

That was an important turning point, as Borucki posted a 2.41 ERA over 20 starts in Lansing and carried that momentum into his torrid 2017. Borucki also corrected a tendency to overthrow, which was borne from his desire to pitch with as much velocity as possible. Once he stopped monitoring the radar gun so closely, his pitches got more accurate, and, in turn, more effective.

“That really changed me,” he says. “I really took a vow to myself, like, ‘Don’t worry about how hard you’re throwing. Just see the spot and try to hit it as many times as you can in a row.’

“My coaches have always stressed it — fastball location, down in the zone, working the outer part of the plate. I’ve really tried to commit myself to that. Because the location of the pitch is always going to beat the velocity. Velocity is just a thing that helps. But if you can’t hit your spots, I don’t care how hard you’re throwing — you’re going to have issues.”

It’s of particular importance to Borucki, who works fast, doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, and leans on his change-up no matter the count. He has exceptionally strong command of that pitch, and can alter its shape at will, straightening it out when he wants to get it over the plate for a strike, and adding tumble to it when he wants to use it as an out pitch.

He’ll sometimes throw as many as 40 change-ups in a game, and remembers an at-bat from 2017 when he threw seven in a row to the same hitter, watching them get fouled off over and over yet still returning to the same pitch until he got the result he was looking for.

Outside of Marco Estrada, Borucki’s is likely the best change-up in Toronto’s organization. Then there’s his new slider. And his results. Plus, his advanced grasp of mound tactics such as sequencing, deception, and tempo. Factor it all in and you can see why the Blue Jays rocketed Borucki up the minor-league system in 2017. And why his graduation to the majors could occur just as quickly this year.

“Everything that happened last year was pretty crazy. I wouldn’t change it for the world. It was a lot of fun,” Borucki says. “Coming into camp, whatever opportunity they give me, I’ll try to take advantage of it. Hopefully that opportunity will be in Toronto. But wherever I land, I’m just going to try to take advantage of anything that comes.”