Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Another Look at Jon Harris

   The incredible long weekend weather here in Southern Ontario helped to put what was a crummy April (from a couple of perspectives, personally) firmly in the rear view mirror.  7 weeks ago, Lansing's Jon Harris made an abbreviated full season debut under Arctic conditions in Midland, MI, against the Great Lakes Loons.
   What a difference nearly two months makes.  We're wearing shorts, riding bikes, and thinking about dipping our toes into Georgian Bay, and since that two-thirds of an inning stint, Harris hasn't given up a run - a stretch of 32 innings - covering six starts.  In his last start, he threw a career-high 7 innings and 11Ks against Fort Wayne.  On Victoria Day, he may have topped that effort with another 7 shutout innings, and another 11 strikeouts in a return visit to the Loons' nest.

  Harris was just filthy and nasty in this outing - here are every one of those 11 Ks:


  In facing Great Lakes, Harris was going up against a team with the lowest (.209) batting average in all of minor league baseball - the Lugs are the third worst hitting team in the minors, but were a game over .500 heading into the contest, thanks to their pitching.  Loons hitters were simply overmatched against Harris.
   This was a "school day" game, with a 10:30 start, and hundreds of screaming kids in the stands.   Players, understandably, are sometimes less than thrilled with the noise, early start, and the high morning sun.
   After not getting out of the first inning as a result of hitting his pitch limit in his last visit to Midland, Harris needed only 14 to retire the side in the first this time, striking out the 2nd hitter on a 96 mph fastball.  He was even more economical in the  8-pitch 2nd, despite giving up a loud leadoff double off the left field wall on the first pitch.
   Harris gave up a single in the third, and struck out a pair.  He was using his fastball command to get ahead of hitters, and then either using his sharp slider or an elevated fastball to put the hitter away. Harris' fastball tails away from right-handed hitters, and when he got ahead two strikes on a hitter, he was completely in control.
   Harris needed only 6 pitches to retire the side in the 5th, and began mixing in curves and changes in the 6th, his longest inning of the day at 21 pitches.  By the 7th, as his pitch count began to close in on 80, he began to fatigue, and Great Lakes hitters began to make more frequent contact.  He gave up a one-out double that CF Lane Thomas may have lost in the early afternoon sun, but then retired the next two hitters on two pitches to complete his day, and extended his scoreless innings streak.  One of the truest test of a pitcher is how he handles himself when his stuff is either off or fading, and Harris passed it with flying colours.
   For the day, Harris gave up only 3 hits and walked one through 7 innings.  He threw 84 pitches, 58 for strikes.  Harris recorded 5 outs via the ground ball, and 3 by fly balls.  He had 13 swinging strikes.

   Harris was in complete command of the Great Lakes hitters, and C Justin Atkinson showed some decent framing skills behind the plate.  When Atkinson set up on the outside corner on right-handed hitters, they had no chance.  Harris blew hitters away with his fastball, mesmerized them with his slider, and kept them honest with his curve and change.  There's really little left for him to prove at this level, and you have to think the only thing keeping the organization from moving him up to Dunedin is the two starts he missed when he returned home to Missouri for a funeral.  Many

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Look at a Pair of Prospect Pitchers on the Comeback Trail

Ryan Borucki - MLB.com photo
   The Lansing Lugnuts are one of a shrinking number of minor league teams that do not stream their in-game video and play-by-play commentary over MiLB.tv, so my exposure to the Lugs so far this young season has been limited to a few games, and some observations made by eyewitnesses.
   This weekend, with Lansing travelling to Midland, MI, to take on the Great Lakes Loons, the games have been streamed, so I've been able to make up for some lost watching.
   On Friday, the Loons and Lugnuts played a twilight doubleheader - what made this game interesting was the pair of pitchers Lansing named to start the games - LHP Ryan Borucki, and RHP Patrick Murphy. The two have only recently arrived in the Midwest League, and while they came from different directions, both are trying to re-establish their baseball careers after missing significant time with injuries.

   Borucki was considered one of the top high school prospects in Illinois prior to the 2012 draft.  A growth spurt of nearly 8 inches between his sophomore and junior years put him firmly on the prospect radar, but after tearing his UCLwhile pitching a no-hitter in his senior year, his stock plummeted.  He opted to rehab his elbow, and given his athleticism, build, and 90-93 fastball with late life, the Blue Jays did not give up on Borucki, and took him in the 15th round, and signed him for third round money to talk him out of his college commitment to Iowa.
   That UCL finally did give way after 4 promising GCL outings in his draft year (10Ks in 6IP), and he missed all of 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
   2014 was a coming out party for Borucki.  Starting in Bluefield, he pitched well enough to rank as Baseball America's 12th-ranked Appy League prospect (even though he pitched only a half short season there), and capped his year off with 7 shutout innings for Vancouver in a playoff game. BA ranked him just outsider of the Blue Jays Top 10 prospects, but was quite high on him:
He has shown pitching aptitude by reducing the effort in his delivery and reducing the height of his high elbow in the back, producing more consistent plane to his heater from his loose, quick arm action. His top secondary offering is a plus changeup. He has a feel for his changeup and for throwing strikes. Borucki currently shows a below-average to fringe-average curveball and may begin using a slider that is more conducive to his three-quarters arm slot.
   Heading into 2015, I had fully expected to see him make his full season debut with Lansing.  He experienced elbow and shoulder soreness throughout spring training, however, and the club opted to keep him in the warmer confines of Extended Spring Training.  His only competition in 2015 was one outing in the GCL in early July, followed by a pair with Vancouver, before being shut down for the season.
   Finally healthy, the club opted to keep him close to the team's medical facility in Dunedin this year, rather than ship him out to Lansing.  And the results were not pretty.  Florida State League hitters feasted on Borucki, hitting him at a .421 clip, before the organization decided the time was right to send him once and for all to the Midwest League earlier this month. He had a decent outing in his first start, giving up only 3 hits and 1 run over 5 innings, walking only one batter and striking out 5.  His start against Great Lakes was his second since arriving at Lansing.

   Borucki threw a tidy 8-pitch first inning, sandwiching a swinging K around a pair of soft flyouts.
Against the heart of the Loons order in the 2nd, Borucki gave up some hard contact, allowing a run on three hits.  LF Andrew Guillotte was fooled on a line drive, and took a few steps in before realizing the ball was over his head, resulting in a double and a run scored.  Borucki gave up a run-scoring single after that, and in total needed 16 pitches to escape the inning.
   Borucki's third inning was a much better effort, a 15-pitch 3-up, 3-down frame that saw a swinging strikeout and a pair of weak groundouts.  He needed 20 pitches to finish off the fourth, issuing a one out walk, and finishing with a swinging punch out.  Lugs broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler was impressed with Borucki's change:

   Things unravelled a bit for Borucki in the 5th.  Great Lakes scored a pair of runs, but a pair of defensive miscues by 2B Aaron Attaway didn't help.  Borucki gave up a leadoff single, then the next batter hit a slow roller to Attaway, who tried to tag the advancing runner but missed, allowing the runner to move to second. Borucki then gave up back-to-back singles, allowing the runner to score.  With two out and runners on first and second and two out, Attaway booted a fairly routine groundball, allowing another run to score, and continuing the inning.  Borucki seemed to lose his composure a bit, and gave up a rocket to right field to the next hitter, bringing in the fourth run of the inning, which came to and end when RF Josh Almonte threw out the hitter who reached base on Attaway's error at 3rd base.  Borucki needed 22 pitches to get out of the inning, and while he left the ball up and gave up some hard contact, he deserved a better fate.

  At 81 pitches, Borucki was still allowed to come back out for the 6th inning.  As a player who needs to make up for lost development time, the organization seems to want to let him pitch his way back into the prospect picture.  It proved to be a good move by Manager John Schneider, as Borucki retired the first two hitters on six pitches, and after a hit batsman, got a swinging strikeout to end his night.

   While Borucki touched 95, he sat mostly 90-92 in this game, and maintained that velo throughout.  His size allows him good extension on his delivery, and there was some of that late life on his fastball. Borucki shows excellent feel for his change, which has been graded a 60 pitch on the 20-80 scale. His slider is a work in progress.  At 6'4", Borucki looks like a starting pitcher - he looks like an athlete on the mound.  The time he has missed means that he has dropped considerably behind his draft class peers,  but he's well on pace to surpass his career high of 57 innings pitched.  Given this lost development time, it's still too early to write him off as a prospect.  He has a number of things to work on, pitch economy being among the biggest, but he just needs to pitch.

   One note about the game - I was improved by the progress C Ryan Hissey has made behind the plate.  He still is a bat-first type of receiver, but his pitch-blocking skills have improved considerably.

   Like Borucki, righthander Murphy has missed significant development time due to injury.  Taken in the third round of the 2013 draft, he missed his whole senior year of high school due to a torn UCL, but the Blue Jays were prepared to wait.  His 2014 season was limited to 4 GCL innings, and he was shut down for all of 2015 after suffering from arm numbness and pain in spring training.
    The reports on Murphy from extended were good, and once the midwestern weather warmed up, his promotion to Lansing was only a matter of time.  He threw a pair of relief innings on May 14, and made his first start in 22 months this past weekend in the second game of the doubleheader.
   Murphy looks something like a right-handed Borucki on the mound, and at 6'4"/220, has a starter's build.
He gets a good downhill plane on his pitches, and consistently pounded the lower part of the strike zone in the first two innings.  Murphy needed only 7 pitches to get out of the first, but a 11-pitch AB by Great Lakes Ariel Sandoval to finish the second may have fatigued him.  In the third inning, Murphy struggled with his command, falling behind hitters, and getting to three balls to 4 of the 6 hitters he faced.  Still, Murphy battled, and was seemingly on his way out of the inning when Lansing SS J.C. Cardenas rushed this throw on a groundball, skipping it to first, where 1B Conor Panas was unable to scoop it.  Murphy loaded the bases with a pair of walks, prompting a visit from Lugnuts' pitching coach Jeff Ware.  The next batter lined Murphy's first pitch up the middle off of his shin and into foul territory along the first base line.  One run scored, but Panas alertly caught the runner rounding third too far in an inning-ending rundown.

   Murphy threw 15 pitches in the 2nd, and 32 in the 3rd.  He threw 54 pitches, 35 for strikes, and recorded 6 groundouts, against 0 flyball outs.  He walked two and struck out a pair.  He sat in the low 90s, and showed a curve that was more 11:30-5:30 than 12-6 or 11-5, but he was able to throw it for strikes, dropping it into the strike zone for his two K's - it has plus potential.  He's at least a month behind other starting pitchers at this point (truth be told, I was surprised they left him in after pitch number 30 in the 3rd, but since it was his last inning, that had to be why he was left in), and like Borucki, just needs the ball every 5th day.  One thing is for sure - the Blue Jays are growing a wealth of promising power starting arms in the system.

Friday, May 20, 2016

June Draft Update

   It's been a few weeks, so maybe now is a good time to take a look at the upcoming MLB June entry draft from a Blue Jays perspective.
   The consensus seems to be that this is a deep draft, especially in terms of high school arms.  The Blue Jays will be out of the running for potential impact pitchers like Florida's A.J. Puk, and high schoolers Jason Groome and Riley Pint.  There should be a decent field to choose from when Toronto's turn rolls around.

  With the 21st pick, I've tried to focus on players who have been ranked in or around that range in the draft.
   First, to update past players I've targeted:

Cal Quantrill RHP Stanford
   The Port Hope, ON native, and son of the former Major Leaguer and current Blue Jays minor league instructor would be a natural fit, and not just for his birthplace.
   Tall, lean, and athletic, he fits the profile of the type of pitcher the organization has made a habit of drafting over the past half dozen years.
   He also is 13 months removed from Tommy John surgery, of course, which has dropped him out of the top of the draft.  Quantrill has started throwing bullpen sessions, but has not faced live hitters yet, and may have to throw privately for teams prior to the draft if there's not enough time to get him into some game action, which is looking more and more like the case.  Just the same, Baseball America has suggested that he would be a good fit for the Jays.
   Quantrill comes with a huge risk factor, as well has potentially huge upside.

Kyle Funkhouser RHP Louisville
   Has dropped off the radar this year, and should no longer be viewed as a potential first round pick.

Forrest Whitley RHP Texas HS
   Whitley broke the thumb on his non-throwing hand early in the season, but that hasn't stopped him from climbing the rankings, likely into the teens.  There are signability concerns, but Whitley likely will not last until the Blue Jays turn.

William Benson, Georgia HS OF
   A so-so spring has dropped Benson's stock.  There have been more than a few Jason Heyward comps made, but despite his size and athleticism, questions have arisen about his bat.  Perfect Game had this to say about him:
Benson's lefthanded swing is almost unnaturally short and has a severe cutoff out front. That lack of extension will create issues with Benson in the future with both his power potential and his plate coverage if it can't be corrected. The bat speed and strength at contact are unmistakable, however.

  BA observed:
 Benson showed plus-plus raw power throughout the summer, though his ability to get to his power is still a question due to concerns that some scouts have about his hitting ability. Benson does not consistently use his lower half, forcing him to commit to swinging at pitches early. His bat path can be a bit steep, leading to a tendency to roll over pitches and hit them on the ground with topspin. 

And now some who have crept into the picture:

Joey Wentz, LHP Kansas HS
   Wentz played 1B on the travel team circuit last summer in order to rest his arm, but will likely be drafted as a pitcher.  The Jays have taken 8 high school pitchers with first or supplemental picks since 2010, so they have proven they are not afraid to gamble on a prep arm.  Wentz may be a tough sign, so the Jays may have to decide if their $2.3 million slot money will be enough to seal the deal with him. There is a ton of projection involved with Wentz.


   T.J Zuech, RHP Pittsburgh
   Zeuch missed the first month of the season, but built upon his successful Cape Cod League showing from the previous summer when he returned.  The Blue Jays were reportedly in attendance at a number of his games this spring.  He doesn't have as much projection as Wentz, but at 6'7" he checks a number of boxes Blue Jays scouts look for.