In the weeks before the Mundelein High School prom in the spring of 2012, Ryan Borucki was filled with a sense of apprehension that extended well beyond the coming-of-age concerns typical of teenagers. The promising left-handed pitcher was getting serious attention from major-league scouts ahead of the draft, but he’d felt a weird twinge in his elbow after throwing a curveball in the fifth inning of a game against Cary-Grove High School. With a gem going, he shrugged off the feeling and completed a seven-inning no-hitter. For some two weeks after he struggled with symptoms including soreness and numbness he couldn’t shake. Then he went to see a doctor, his future hinging on what the exam turned up.
While still waiting for the doctor to call with his MRI results, Borucki went with his dad, Ray, an infielder who played five seasons of pro ball and topped out at triple-A, to pick up a tuxedo for the prom. The black suit with a flashy navy blue vest was hanging in the back of the family’s Honda CRV when Ray’s phone rang. With his father speaking in hushed tones, Borucki tried to stay optimistic. “Do you have any good news for me?” he asked, hopefully, after Ray ended the call.
“I could just hear in his voice I wasn’t getting good news,” Borucki says now, “so I instantly started crying.” Amid the sobs, Ray delivered the three words every pitcher fears: “Tommy John surgery.”
The tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing arm upended all of Borucki’s plans. Though he’d committed to the University of Iowa, pitching for the Hawkeyes was a backup plan, leverage to use in negotiations with big-league clubs ahead of the draft. Having “blown out” — to use the industry parlance — his stock plummeted, especially because he’d need at least a year to recover from the operation. The dream wasn’t dead, but it certainly felt deferred. “I had some dark days,” admits Borucki.
In his room shortly after getting the news, he turned on his iPad, logged into an Illinois-area baseball hub where players can update scouts on when and where they’re playing, and sent a message to the growing collection of bird-dogs following his progress.
“I really just appreciated them coming to my house, stuff like that,” Borucki says, after reviewing his note six years later. “And after I sent that I really didn’t think that I was going to get drafted. I was totally ready to go to the University of Iowa, get surgery, be there for three years and hopefully get drafted after. Obviously, that’s not how it worked out.”
No, far from it. In the haze of disappointment that had enveloped him, there was no way Borucki could have imagined that the curveball against Cary-Grove, the diagnosis of a total UCL tear and his note to the area’s scouts would eventually lead him to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Like Borucki had expected, in the wake of his injury and email most of the scouts that had been following him peeled off and shifted their focus elsewhere. Many passed along encouraging words and promised to keep tabs on him at Iowa. But as for the 2012 draft, it was over; selling an injured high-school pitcher to national cross-checkers and scouting directors was too daunting a task.
Mike Medici, at the time a third-year scout for the Blue Jays, was the exception. A former catcher who played at Niagara University, he’d really come to like both Borucki and the pitcher’s family. Though Medici admits the kid was mostly “skin and bones,” Borucki was athletic, already six-foot-three on his way to six-foot-four, and his velocity had picked up from 87-88 m.p.h. as a junior to 91-92 as a senior. Along with a decent changeup and an inconsistent breaking ball, “there was a lot to dream on.” That’s why Medici felt so badly for Borucki when he learned of the injury and tried to do what he could to lift the youngster’s spirits. He was also very impressed when Borucki decided to push back surgery so he could play first base for his high-school team as it pursued a state title. “That spoke volumes,” says Medici, who now scouts for the Texas Rangers. “It showed who he was. It wasn’t all about me, it’s about this group that he’d pretty much played with his entire life. That was more important to him at the time.”
Underlining the point is that when Borucki went to meet with his coaches and teammates to inform them of his injury, he started with an apology, feeling that he’d let them down. The talk with the Mustangs “was tough because those were all my childhood buddies and we were really good in my senior year,” he says.
After about three weeks of rest, the doctor cleared Borucki to play first base. He was doing that one game when the shortstop relayed a ball over as a runner at third broke for home. Instinctively, Borucki threw as hard as he could to the plate. Once the adrenaline of the moment had passed, he was stunned to realize he didn’t feel any pain or numbness in his elbow. “I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s weird,’” he says.
A visit with a second doctor was scheduled and further testing revealed a partial tear, as opposed to the total tear of his initial diagnosis. Surgery could potentially be avoided, the doctor said, but the only way to be sure was to get back on the mound and see what happened. Borucki resumed throwing bullpens and pitched sparingly. During a junior varsity game, he hit 94 m.p.h. for the first time.
Medici was there to see it and immediately phoned Andrew Tinnish, now an assistant GM with the Blue Jays, who was then Toronto’s amateur scouting director. “‘This guy is hurt but he’s throwing harder – I have no explanation for you, but it’s there,’” Medici remembers saying. “So what we decided to do was to keep following him.”
The 2012 MLB Draft was the first to use the current signing bonus pool system, which soft caps spending on players. Adapting early, the Blue Jays were among the first teams to manipulate their allotment to get players who slipped, essentially punting on picks in rounds four to 10 and reallocating the spending power from those spots elsewhere. Outfield prospect Anthony Alford is the prime example. He signed for $750,000, well over the No. 112 pick’s assigned value of $424,400. Teams employing such a strategy also draft so-called “tough signs” with college commitments later in the draft as a contingency in the event they have some money left over. The Blue Jays planned to make Borucki one of these tough contingencies.
Medici was all-in on the left-hander. Only three other teams — the Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays and New York Mets — had continued to follow Borucki after the injury. Borucki had also put out an asking price of $450,000 to be bought out of college, a substantial number for a pitcher expected to undergo Tommy John surgery. “I didn’t think that was crazy — if he was healthy, it was a slam dunk,” says Medici. “A lot of teams just walked away thinking, ‘This guy is going to get the surgery, he’s going to school, we’ll figure it out later.’”
Borucki was of that mind, too, hitting the Steeplechase Golf Club in Mundelein with his dad on draft day. He declined an offer from the Rays and was still on the course when he turned down another from the Marlins. Passing a second time he thought to himself, “I’m not getting drafted. It’s over.” Back home later in the day, a vibrating cellphone woke him from a nap. He groggily answered. “Hey man,” Medici said. “We just drafted you in the 15th round. I’ll call you later with more details.” Still half out of it, Borucki walked downstairs, turned to his mom, Jackie, and asked, “Mom, did I just get drafted?”
“She was like, ‘I don’t think so.’ But she looked online and yeah, my name was right there. I got drafted by Mike,” recalls Borucki. Initially the Blue Jays asked if he’d accept an offer in the neighbourhood of the $380,000 he’d turned down from the Marlins. He said no, and Toronto told him they needed to sort through their bonus pool. Marcus Stroman, selected at No. 22, was going to take some time to lock down and they needed a few things to break right for them to be able to sign Borucki, too. Since he was taken after the 10th round, anything above $100,000 would count against the bonus pool.
Still, to show how real their interest was, the Blue Jays flew Borucki, his parents and Medici down from Illinois for a weekend in Toronto, giving him a taste of big-league life. “I was like, man this is the coolest thing ever,” says Borucki. “I got a couple of MRIs, threw a bullpen and they said, ‘Alright, we’ll be in touch.’”
Stroman eventually signed for $1.8 million and the Blue Jays offered Borucki the $426,000 they could spend without forfeiting a draft pick. “They said, ‘This is what we got, do you want to take it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’” Borucki says. Tinnish then phoned Medici, who was at a Chicago White Sox game with the woman who’d later become his wife, and told him to take the contract to the Borucki home and get it signed. “I still have the pictures from going up there to the house, getting him to sign the contract,” said Medici. “It’s such a great story.”
Borucki’s elbow made it through his pro debut later that summer with the rookie-level GCL Blue Jays, as he allowed two runs over six innings with 10 strikeouts in four appearances. But the injury bothered him all throughout the winter. The following spring, he didn’t even go to minor-league camp, reporting to extended spring instead. After a couple of bullpens, he was shut down. “I was trying to throw as hard as I can and it felt like a marshmallow was coming out,” he says.
Dr. James Andrews performed the Tommy John surgery, which sidelined Borucki for all of the 2013 season. He bounced back to log 57 innings between rookie-ball Bluefield and short-season-A Vancouver in 2014, impressing at both stops. Still, Borucki wasn’t out of the woods and in 2015 bone spurs in his elbow made it feel like “a loose body got stuck in the joint” and interrupted his progress. “When I tried to extend my arm, it was like hitting a speed bump,” he recalls. “It was really inflamed.” Surgery limited him to three appearances all year.
Pitching in only 20 games over four years of pro ball took a mental and emotional toll, but Borucki learned to appreciate little things, like being able to run, being able to lift weights. “You don’t take things for granted,” he says. And while rehabbing from the first surgery, he befriended several players on the ’13 GCL Blue Jays team, including catcher Danny Jansen, who quickly became one of his best friends. The two roomed together at Bluefield in 2014 and in ’15, when Borucki was recovering from the second operation, he rehabbed with Jansen, who was recovering from a broken hand as he endured a period of stops and starts of his own. “We’ve been boys since we first met each other,” says Borucki. “We’ve had similar journeys. We’ve hit almost every level together; both had a couple years of injuries. For a while, me and Danny were like, ‘Man, this might not be for us’ — you know, our bodies might not be able to take it. But now, being healthy, being able to play, especially here, it’s been unbelievable.”
The first breakthrough came in 2016, when Borucki went wire-to-wire without issues at low-A Lansing and advanced-A Dunedin, logging a combined 135.2 innings over 26 starts. The beginning of that season wasn’t exactly a fairy tale, as he opened in Dunedin and got blitzed for 32 runs in his first 20 innings, destroying his confidence. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m not going to be able to pitch out of high-A,’” he remembers. “I thought there was no chance.”
The demotion to Lansing allowed Borucki to reset and make some adjustments, including reintegrating a turn in his delivery to create more deception. After the season, the Blue Jays decided to add him to the 40-man roster rather than risk exposing him to the Rule 5 draft, with general manager Ross Atkins saying at the time that “it’s rare that you have a group of people absolutely pound the table for a player without one exception.” Given all the injuries he’d experienced and that he hadn’t advanced out of A-ball, Borucki was surprised to have been added to the 40, but says “it was an honour to have that because it meant they really, really cared about me and I thought they had a bigger plan for me.”
The bigger plan took off in Dunedin in 2017, when Borucki started working with pitching coach Mark Riggins. The former minor-league lefty, new to the organization after serving as pitching coach for the Cincinnati Reds, came to the Blue Jays with recent big-league experience. His approach was to sit back and watch his players, get to know them personally before offering feedback. As he watched early on, two things jumped out: Borucki didn’t pitch low in the zone effectively enough, and while he did a good job of pitching inside, he didn’t make good use of the outer part of the plate. “Things start getting exposed at that level,” says Riggins. “You can have success at the high-A level, but sometimes it’s not real. You need to see the other stuff.”
At first, Borucki didn’t take well to the feedback. Suspicious of a coach trying to change him, especially coming off a good season, he butted heads with Riggins. “I thought I had it all figured out, and I was like, ‘Just leave me alone,’” he explains.
Riggins kept at him, though. During games, watching video, he’d point to different offerings and say “that’s a major-league pitch,” when, say, a low fastball induced a groundball. He’d say “that’s a minor-league pitch,” when an offering stayed in a hittable zone, even if an out was recorded. Eventually, the light bulb turned on for Borucki. “I was like, ‘Man, all he is trying to do is help me,’” he says. “He just really pushed me, like now you can do this better, you can do that better. Nobody really likes hearing the stuff they need to work on. They want to hear, ‘OK, you’re doing really well.’ But once I really bought in, that’s when I really took off. We started to work really well together. I looked forward to throwing sides with him and talking to him every day.”
By mid-July, Borucki was promoted to double-A New Hampshire; a month later, he was at triple-A Buffalo. If the Blue Jays had the innings for him, he would have been a September call-up. Watching a player make such rapid progress is the most satisfying reward for a coach. “Most of the good ones, you do butt heads with them,” says Riggins. “We had man-to-man talks on things that needed to be done and the good ones have ideas about what needs to be done. You don’t just want a ‘Yes’ pitcher who does whatever the coach says. A part of being a good competitor is having your own ideas and analyzing what’s right or what isn’t right.”
The gains continued this year for Borucki, leading to six innings of two-run ball in his big-league debut on June 26 at Houston. Medici, out scouting that day, followed the game on his phone. Though Borucki pitched well, his first win in the majors didn’t come until Aug. 3, when he spun eight innings of four-hit ball against the Mariners in Seattle, leaving to a standing ovation from the pro-Blue Jays crowd at Safeco Field. Bumps — like a six-run, two-out outing at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 19 — have been few and far between. “Since I’ve been here, I really have taken a lot of time to reflect on everything I’ve been through and it’s been a tough road,” says Borucki. “Surgeries as a 19- and 21-year-old kid, it’s tough. I had to sit out two full years. Sometimes you feel like, ‘I’m never going to get out of this complex in Florida.’ You really appreciate the little things after going through that process.”
Borucki is making sure to keep some mementos each step along the way. Ray gave away the jerseys and gloves from his pro career and now he regrets not holding some stuff back for himself — if only to avoid teasing from Borucki. “I used to be like, ‘Yeah, you probably didn’t even play pro ball. All I hear is all these stories and you have nothing to prove it,’” Borucki says with a mischievous grin.
From tears in a car to a promising beginning with the Blue Jays — it’s safe to say he won’t ever have to worry about being chided in the same way.
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