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.
 

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