Bob Elliott's Baseball: Ryan Borucki's hard work, Jays' faith, converge on major-league mound

An injury to his throwing arm in high school could have derailed Ryan Borucki's dream, but attitude and hard work now have him as an emerging bright light in the Blue Jays' rotation.

After 3 strong starts for Toronto, that patience is paying off

Blue Jays rookie Ryan Borucki has thrown three quality starts in the first three outings of his major-league career. (Fred Thornhill/Canadian Press)

Parents, players and agents have been known to contact scouts over the years.

Usually the email includes the date and time of the player's team's next game or workout. The implication being "Please come see me pitch [or hit.]"

In the spring of 2012, Ryan Borucki sent out a mass email to all the Midwest area scouts and scouting directors.
Borucki, the current bright light of the "Future Jays," wrote an email after he injured his elbow pitching for the Mundelein (Ill.) High School Mustangs.

"Ryan sent out a long email to all the scouts explaining how he felt a pop in his arm," said former Blue Jays scout Mike Medici. "He wrote he had a partially torn UCL, but elected not to have surgery and would play first base the rest of the high school season. He wanted to help his school go to state playdowns.

"He was very appreciative of time the scouts had spent visiting him and basically thanked us all. He didn't have to do that. I've seen a lot of guys blow their arms out before, but I've never seen an injured player write a thank you to scouts when he wasn't even drafted."

I want to thank everyone that came out to see me pitch over the winter and spring. I will still be playing first base, but unfortunately probably not pitching for the rest of the season. I hope I get the honor of privilege of pitching for you guys again in the future.- Email sent by  high-school-aged Ryan Borucki to major league scouts

Facing the Detroit Tigers on July 2, Borucki allowed a run on four singles in the first inning and then set down the next 13 batters he faced. On the day he allowed two runs in seven innings to become the third pitcher in Blue Jays history to go more than six innings with two-or-less earned runs in each of his first two starts with the Jays. Brett Cecil and Ricky Romero did the same in 2009.

Borucki recorded eight strikeouts without a walk, tying Roy Halladay in 1998 against the Tigers for the second most by a Jay in their first home start, behind only Jose Nunez, who fanned 11 in 1987 against the Kansas City Royals. 

Brett Gardner drove in the winning run in the 10th inning as the New York Yankees bested the Toronto Blue Jays 2-1. 1:27

Borucki pitched six innings in his debut June 26 facing the Houston Astros. He allowed two runs on six hits and four walks, while giving his team a chance to win, He struck out Marwin Gonzalez, Jake Marisnick and Brian McCann. 
Halladay and Borucki are the only pitchers in franchise history with an eight-strikeout and zero-walk performance in their first two games.

He had a third quality start on July 8 against the New York Yankees, allowing one run in seven innings, joining Romero as the only pitchers in team history to throw six-plus innings while allowing two earned runs or less in each of their first three starts. He struck out five batters (Austin Romine, twice, plus Clint Frazier, Miguel Andujar and Greg Bird) while walking one. 

The lefty has 16 strikeouts through his first three starts, tying Marc Rzepczynski (2009) for second most by a Blue Jays pitcher in their first three since Jerry Garvin, who had 18 in 1977. Borucki holds a 2.25 ERA holding opponents to a .225 batting average.

* * *

To start at the start, Gary Bennett caught 13 years in the majors, mostly with the Philadelphia Phillies. He helps travel teams who work out at Slammers Training Academy in Lake Forest, Ill. north of Chicago. Mundelein is the next burg over and Borucki's high school team would come indoors to work out. So he first met Borucki when Borucki was 14 or 15 years old. 

"I caught Ryan a couple of times as a high schooler," Bennett said. "He was 90-92 mph, but one pitch would sink and the next one would cut. I had to start paying attention. It took me back to the low-level minor-leaguer days when the ball just jumped. You knew once they figured it out, they would be fine."

Bennett couldn't compare Borucki to any minor-league lefties, but said his ball had movement similar to former Phillies right-handers Matt Beech, a prospect who pitched parts of three seasons with the Phillies, and Larry Mitchell, a fifth-rounder whose fastball had real good life. Both pitchers have the ability to make the ball "cut and/or sink."

Ryan's father, Ray Borucki, a former infielder who played five seasons in the Phillies' system, peaking with the triple-A 1982 Oklahoma '89ers, is one of many ex-pros who help out with the Slammers' travel teams.

* * *

Borucki emerged as a high school senior to watch in Illinois on March 14, 2012. In his first outing his velocity was 90-92 mph and his changeup worked extremely well.

"His first start was a crazy spring day — 75 degrees — against Hoffman Estates (HS)," said Medici, who loved Borucki's fastball and change. "You could dream on the curveball." 

From that moment. Borucki was a "must-see." Cross-checker Tom Burns was scheduled to see Borucki. Scouting director Andrew Tinnish (Burlington, Ont.) was excited about Borucki, as he had seen him in 2011 at the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif. 

Ryan Borucki had Tommy John surgery in 2012. (Fred Thornhill/Canadian Press)

After a no-hitter against Cary-Grove in March, Borucki's next start was on the spring trip. Chicago high schools do not go to Florida or Arizona. Rather they head five hours south to better weather in Marion, Ill., home to the Southern Illinois Miners of the Frontier League.  

Borucki was on the all-turf mound at Rent One Park in the last week of March. Burns, then a Blue Jays scout, and Medici were there to evaluate. Borucki's foot slipped on the all-turf mound. He felt a tweak in the left arm and a partial tear of his elbow. He would need Tommy John surgery

Hence the email.

* * *

And the Mundelein Mustangs continued their season. Sure enough, strange things happen in the heat of a game. In April, Borucki was playing first base while his arm recovered and he had to make a quick throw to third in April. That led to him seeking a second opinion. The doctor said he was free to pitch as long as he realized his elbow could go at any point. 

"He lets it rip and it didn't hurt," Medici said. Borucki was told if he didn't have any pain, he could resume pitching. 

After missing most of the spring of his senior year, Borucki was ready to audition again. It was a long road back. 

Most clubs scratched him off their lists when he injured his elbow. Miami Marlins area scout Kevin Ibach, now with the Tampa Bay Rays, and Medici, let go by Blue Jays scouting director Rob Parker and now a Texas Rangers scout, were the only two to keep steady tabs on Borucki, along with the New York Mets.

Ibach and Medici would go to see a Mundelein game, Borucki wouldn't pitch and his father Ray Borucki would apologize to the scouts. The Mustangs used him out of the bullpen.  

The first time Medici saw him after his outing on the all-turf mound, Borucki pitched one inning for the Mundelein JayVees. He recalls texting a quick update: "He's hurt and he's throwing harder (92-93 mph.)"

The Jays were in on Borucki — if they had bonus money left over. Burns and Medici saw Borucki in May and they saw Borucki use a fastball and change (he did not throw curveballs) and "most of all," according to Burns, the lefty "looked healthy."

On the day of the 2012 MLB draft, Tinnish called Medici in the 12th round to say, "We're taking Borucki in the 15th ... if he's still there." The Jays were waiting to sign right-hander Marcus Stroman, selected 22nd overall from Duke. Stroman was given $1.8 million US as his bonus.

Borucki was asked by teams if he would be willing to lower his price for a signing bonus (due to his injury) and said no each time. He figured he might not be drafted at all. 

Medici estimated that if Borucki, who helped Mundelein to 34 wins and a spot in the sectional, had not been injured he would have gone in the third or fourth round. Borucki and his parents, Jackie and Ray, were flown to Toronto. The lefty was examined by a Jays doctor and threw a bullpen session before the Jays played the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

The Jays gave 15th-rounder Borucki an above-slot $426,000 US bonus, enough to keep the lefty from pitching for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. They made this decision knowing Tommy John surgery was somewhere in his future. 

"Mike maintained contact with the family and the relationship helped us ultimately sign him," Burns said. I ran into the most veteran scout from the Midwest last week. He told me that, "Mike Medici is best scout in my area." 

The Jays decided that they liked Borucki better than LHP Ryan Kellogg (Whitby, Ont.) of the Ontario Prospects, who they had selected in the 12th round. Kellogg accepted an Arizona State scholarship and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the fifth round three years later.

* * *

After pitching six innings in 2012 for the rookie-class Gulf Coast Jays, Borucki underwent Tommy John surgery the next spring. The operation was performed by Dr. James Andrews himself. 

"Dr. Andrews told Ryan, 'If you were at 92 [mph] before, you'll throw 95 no problem,'" Medici said. "With Tommy John surgery, the big thing if you have a strong work ethic and are diligent, you are going to come back stronger. There was never any doubt about Ryan's work ethic."

The lefty threw a bullpen session in Chicago when he was allowed to by Dr. Andrews and was 88-89 mph with command, which usually comes last.  

* * *

Borucki spent 2014, his first season post-surgery, at rookie-class Bluefield (eight games) and class-A Vancouver (five games), working 57 innings. Then in 2015, he treaded water; at Vancouver (two games) and the Gulf Coast (one game) due to a bone spur in his elbow and shoulder issues, limiting him to 5 2/3 innings.

In 2016, he started the season at class-A Dunedin. It did not go well, as the late Tom Cheek would have said. 
Like April 26, when the Tampa Yankees hit four home runs off the lefty in a span of six hitters on the way to an 11-5 win before 712 fans at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

It went like this: 

No. 9 hitter Michael O'Neill led off the third with a homer to left field. After a single and an out, 1B Billy Fleming homered to left centre. Then 3B Miguel Andujar, who now plays at the small band box in the Bronx, went back-to-back with a home run to left field. And 2B Abiatal Avelino went back-to-back-to-back, homering to centre. 

Borucki was 1-4 with a 14.40 ERA in six starts — allowing 12 homers in 20 innings — when he was demoted to class-A Lansing. The only two who had a higher ERA were Aaron Loup (four runs in two innings on a rehab assignment) and infielder Dickie Joe Thon, who allowed a run in 1/3 of an inning.

Pitching coach Jeff Ware is given credit for turning the lefty's season around. In 20 starts for the Lugnuts, Borucki went 10-4 with a 2.41 ERA, walking only 26 and striking out 107 in 115 2/3 innings.

He started the 2017 season at Dunedin and had much better success — going 6-5 with a 3.58 ERA in 18 starts — before being moved to double-A New Hampshire — 2-3, 1.94 in seven starts — and one start at triple-A Buffalo.

He began this season at Buffalo, going 6-5 with a 3.27 ERA in 13 starts.

* * *

Borucki reminds long-time Jays observers of another pick — 14th-rounder (1999) Brandon Lyon of the Dixie State. Lyon  made his debut in 2000 with class-A Queens and the next year was pitching in the "TV league."

In 2001, Lyon started at double-A Tennessee, then went to triple-A Syracuse and was 5-4 with a 4.29 ERA in 11 starts, walking 15 and striking out 35 in 63 innings. 

Dixie State was a junior college at the time when Lyon was drafted by Marteese Robinson. Tim Huff became the area scout and cultivated the relationship. Tim Wilken and Chris Buckley both scouted Lyon in the spring. 

Lyon went on to pitch 12 seasons in the majors for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Houston Astros, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, the Tigers and the Jays. 

* * *

Medici was in Auburn N.Y. watching the Doubledays, a former Blue Jays farm team, host the West Virginia Black Bears on June 26. For most of the year he has amateur coverage of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin for the Rangers. The trip to upstate New York was part of his pro coverage.

Meanwhile, in the great state of Texas, the former Mundelein Mustang lefty, was making his major-league debut against the World Series champion Astros. At 8 p.m. ET, Medici watched the Astros-Blue Jays game on his phone.

"I told his dad I was fist pumping," the scout said, which really didn't mesh with what was happening at Falcon Park in Auburn.

"He's always gone from one end of the dugout to the other fist pumping everyone," said Medici, who thought, "Good for you, he's not doing anything different. I noticed he had to turn a couple of guys around. The thing that is so special about Ryan is that he is the same kid today as he was when he was 17."

Mediici flew home the following Monday, landing in time to see Borucki turn in another quality start against the Tigers.

"I could not be more proud of him. He looked like the same. He has not changed." 

About the Author

Bob Elliott is Canada's preeminent baseball writer, having covered MLB and Canadian baseball for nearly 40 years. He is a member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and in 2012 became the first Canadian to be awarded the J.G. Taylor Spink Award by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.


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