Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Look at Ryan Borucki

Kyle Castle/Lansing Lugnuts/MiLB photo

  Last month, the Blue Jays had some 40-man roster decisions to make in advance of this month's Rule 5 draft.
  Specifically, they had to decide which of three pitchers who have not competed above A ball, but might make attractive bullpen options at the MLB level, to protect.
   This could not have been an easy decision. The trio included:
-Francisco Rios, a 2012 free agent signing from Mexico, began 2016 with Lansing, but after a month of dominating Midwest League hitters, was promoted to Dunedin;
-LHP Angel Perdomo, a 6"6" 2011 late IFA signing from the Dominican, who led the MWL in strikeouts this year, averaging just over 11K/9;
-Southpaw Ryan Borucki, a 2012 15th round pick who has had trouble staying healthy, and just finished his first full season with the organization.

   This could not have been an easy decision.  Rios and Borucki rely on command and secondary pitches, while Perdomo's main weapon is his 95 mph fastball - Fangraphs' Chris Mitchell suggests that some MLB team may try to stash him in their bullpen as a 3rd lefty/longman.  Ultimately, they chose Borucki, whose grit, advanced feel for pitching, and command of his whole repertoire of pitches led the Blue Jays to believe both that he was a better long-term prospect, and that he might be too tempting an arm to pass through the draft.

  Borucki was considered one of the top prep lefties in Illinois in his draft year, until a torn UCL caused his stock to fall.  The Blue Jays were not put off by his medicals, and took him in the 15th round, signing him for 3rd round money (Borucki had committed to Iowa).  Borucki tried to continue to rehabilitate his elbow, but was shut down that year after only four outings with Rookie-Level Bluefield.  He ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery the following spring, wiping out his 2013 season.
  Borucki came back with a vengeance in 2014, pitching at both Bluefield (where he was named the Appalachian League's 12th best prospect, despite only pitching a month there) and Vancouver.  Baseball America was high on him:
He projects for at least average control with a chance to be plus. His delivery has improved significantly, and he throws with significantly less effort from his loose, quick arm, while working over the ball more and not leaking with his hips. Borucki's fastball was 90-94 early in the season and sat 88-92, touching 94 later in the season. He relies on his two-seamer that has at least average sink and arm-side run. Borucki demonstrates advanced feel for a changeup with plus potential. His curveball is a below-average to fringe-average offering, and Borucki could begin throwing a slider this offseason. He has a starter's build at a lanky 6-foot-4 with a high waist and significant projection remaining.
   The brakes were applied to his development again in 2015, however, when shoulder, elbow, and back issues limited his season to 6 innings.  Borucki was ticketed for Lansing this season, but was held back in Dunedin for April while the weather in the Midwest warmed up, and to be close to the Blue Jays medical facilities.  Pitching against the more advanced FSL hitters, Borucki was still shaking off the rust from a year's inactivity off, giving up 40 hits in 20 innings.  His career seemed to be in jeopardy when he finally reached Lansing in mid-May.
   His turnaround could not have been more sudden or dramatic.
   In his MWL debut, Borucki gave up only one earned run in 5 innings.  Two starts later, he threw 6 scoreless frames, and in June, threw a pair of back-to-back games that were easily the best of his career: an 8 inning, 5-hit/1ER, 0BB, 8K effort, followed by 7 innings of 4-hit, shutout ball, with 6 strikeouts and (again) no walks.  Here's his 6th K from that 2nd start:


   Borucki finished 2nd in the league in ERA, 4th in WHIP, and fanned almost a batter an inning while tossing a career-high 115 frames.  His August 8th start gave some insight into why the Blue Jays ultimately decided to protect him on the 40-man.

   Borucki struggled slightly with his fastball command in the 1st inning of this start against West Michigan, but received a nice 5-4-3 double play after issuing a one out walk to finish his 11-pitch inning.  In the 2nd, he began to use his change up, which has excellent depth to it.  That pitch may prove one day to be the most effective in his arsenal, and may already be the best in the organization outside of Marco Estrada.  After falling behind 2-0 to the leadoff hitter, he fanned that man on a full-count change, then got ahead of the next two hitters, allowing him to use his secondaries to get a 6-3 groundout and a called 3rd strike to end an inning in which he threw 15 pitches.
  Borucki gave up his only solid contact on the day, a 1-out single, in the 3rd,  and began to spot his fastball and slider more effectively after giving up a walk following that base hit.  His concentration wavered a bit with runners on 1st and 2nd, giving up a double steal after failing to look back at the runner on 2nd who had taken a big walking lead the previous pitch.  He needed 18 pitches to retire the side in the 3rd.  He did not show a great move to first in this outing, and may have to work more at holding runners closer.
   The 4th inning saw Borcuki really settle into a groove, retiring the side in order on 9 pitches with a pair of Ks, and 4 whiffs.  His fastball sat at 92, and he had improved command of his slider to LHH, and his change to RHH.  He was able to locate the ball seemingly at will, setting up hitters by locating to either side of the plate.
  The only blemish on Borcuki's 5th inning of work was a two-out, four-pitch walk, with CF Lane Thomas making a sliding catch on a sinking liner to finish the inning.  At 67 pitches, Borucki, whose pitch count had been reduced as he blew by his previous career innings high, was finished for the night.  He threw 44 strikes, gave up only one hit, while walking three and fanning five.  He recorded five outs via groundballs, and two by flyouts.  He threw 12 first-pitch strikes to 18 of the hitters he faced, and recorded 9 swings-and-misses on the night.  Working from the first base side of the rubber, Borucki's arm angle makes him extremely tough on left-handed hitters, while his change keeps the righties off balance.

  Borucki is a student of the game, and watches his teammates' bullpen sessions between starts.  His delivery has undergone considerable change over the past year.  When he arrived at Lansing, he worked with Lugnuts' pitching coach Jeff Ware and minor league instructor Sal Fasano at adding more deception to his delivery - the thinking was that hitters in the Florida State League were getting too good a look at his pitches. Borucki learned his change from his father, who pitched in the Phillies organization.  Dad wouldn't allow him to throw a curve until his senior year of high school, so Borucki learned to change speeds and master one of the more difficult pitches to throw.  When his fastball or slider location is off, he always seems to have command of that change.
   At 22, there is little projection remaining for Borucki, but we've seen so little of him that it's hard to get a true handle on his ceiling just yet.  Of the trio, he probably projects the highest in terms on long-term potential as a starter.  He has a solid pitcher's frame, is athletic, and gets a good downward plane on his pitches.  He has a four-pitch mix that can turn a lineup over.  If he can stay healthy, he can begin to move quickly through the system, now that his option clock will start ticking next year.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Look at Josh DeGraaf

Kyle Castle photo

    There are many players who are just not ready for pro ball after their senior year of high school.
Some may have physical maturing still to do, while others need to grow up more from an emotional or competitive standpoint.
   In 2010, the Blue Jays took a skinny infielder from Las Vegas in the 18th round.  The consensus was that the prospect was not ready for pro ball, and he turned down the Blue Jays in favour of the University of San Diego.  Three years later, Kris Bryant was chosen first overall by the Cubs, on his way to Rookie of the Year Honours in 2014, and the 2016 NL MVP award, along with a World Series ring. It's not that Toronto missed out on a can't miss prospect:  most teams did not consider him a prospect at that point.
   In 2012, the Blue Jays took a chance on another skinny teenager, a pitcher from St Louis named Jon Harris.  Harris spurned the Blue Jays, too, and attended Missouri State.  Three years later, he had matured into a first round pick, and the Blue Jays selected him again.  Now, he is one of the top prospects in the system.
   Josh DeGraaf was a pitcher and infielder at Morris Community HS just outside of Chicago, and by his own admission,  wasn't ready for pro ball when he graduated in 2011.  He admitted as much to his hometown paper, the Morris Herald-News:
“Since high school, I have grown an inch or two and gained about 35 pounds,” said DeGraaf, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds. “My velocity now is consistently around 90 or 91. But, for most of my career, I have stressed command over velocity since I didn’t always throw that hard. My velocity had to get up to have a chance.

 DeGraaf played for Taylor University, an NAIA school in Indiana.  Under the guidance of Head Coach Todd Klein, who sang DeGraaf's praises to the Herald-News, DeGraaf grew considerably during his time at the school:
“We knew that Josh would go on to good things,” Kein said. “When he was playing for us, it was evident that he wasn’t as physically mature as he was going to get. He has done a lot of hard work. He is one of the best players I have ever coached. He played shortstop for three years on the varsity level. He was a great program kid and a great leader. He is one of the few players I have ever hadl that was a captain in both his junior and senior years.

  Obviously, DeGraaf needed four years of college to mature as a player, but even at that, he lasted until the 31st round in the 2015 draft, when the Blue Jays called his name.  And his maturation has continued since turning pro.  DeGraaf spent his first year of pro ball with Vancouver, then became a mainstay in Lansing's bullpen last season, appearing in 35 games (7 of them as a starter) for the Lugnuts.  Since turning pro, he's experienced an uptick in velocity, has refined command of all of this pitches, and has developed a slider "out of nowhere" as one source put it.

   DeGraaf is part of the Blue Jays contingent of prospects that made the trek to Australia to suit up for the Canberra Cavalry of the ABL.  What's interesting about his inclusion is that for the first several years of the Blue Jays relationship with Canberra, only position players were sent.  Last year, they finally sent a pair of pitchers (Colton Turner, who had a breakout year in 2016 before being dealt to the White Sox for Dioner Navarro, and Phil Kish).  This year, DeGraaf has been joined in the Land Down Under by Lansing bullpen mates Andrew Case and Jackson Lowery.  I watched his start last Saturday (November 19th) in the Cavs' opening series against Brisbane.

   If DeGraaf felt any rust from a two month-plus layoff since his last outing, he didn't show it in the 1st inning. Pitching against Brisbane, last year's ABL champs, DeGraaf was facing a veteran lineup.  Pounding the bottom half of the strike zone, he gave up a lead off infield single that might have been an out with a better defence behind him.  Five pitches later, he gave up another groundball that was just an eyelash away from being a double play.  Facing Twins' prospect Logan Wade, he picked off Rays prospect Thomas Milone, then struck out Wade swinging to end the inning.
   DeGraaf was not as sharp in the 2nd.  Maybe the rust was showing, and maybe he was getting squeezed a bit by the home plate umpire, but DeGraaf needed 28 pitches to get through the inning, giving up a run on a pair of walks and a line drive single up the middle to put Brisbane on the board.
   De Graaf was much more composed and efficient in the 3rd, getting a flyout to right, a called K, then giving up a single before getting a swinging punchout to end the inning.  At 68 pitches, he had reached his limit for his first outing, and was relieved by Case.
   Here, DeGraaf flashes a deceptively-delivered change up with good depth to get Milone swigning:


   On the day, DeGraaf gave up that one earned run on three hits, with a pair of walks, and 5 strikeouts.  He managed first-pitch strikes on 8 of the 13 hitters he faced, including the last 6 in a row as his command sharpened.  DeGraaf painted the outside corner to left-handed hitters, and like most pitchers who rely on control over velocity, he was more effective when he was ahead in the count, when his secondary pitches (change, slider) came into play.  As he showed when he picked off Malone, he has a good move to first, and is quick to home.  DeGraaf stands on the right side of the rubber, angled toward 3rd, and has a simplified windup that reminds me of Marco Estrada and former Lansing teammate Sean Reid-Foley.  He repeats his delivery well, and does a good job of disguising his secondaries with his delivery.
   DeGraaf started again today (November 26th), and pitched 6 innings, allowing only one earned run on 1 hit, walking four and striking out 5.  He threw 86 pitches, 51 for strikes, and recorded 8 ground ball outs.With the reduced ABL schedule this season, DeGraaf appears to be settling as Canberra's 3rd starter, pitching every 6 or 7 days.  It's interesting that after spending most of the season in a relief role, the Blue Jays want to stretch him out as a starter to see what results they get.  DeGraaf throws that sinking fastball with good command, which is complemented by his change and slider.  He may pitch to contact and not miss a lot of bats (7, by my count), but even in this brief outing that came after not having pitched in 10 weeks, DeGraaf can be difficult to square up because of his ability to control the strike zone.  He has the tall, athletic build (6"4"/180) that the Blue Jays covet, and he gets a good downward plane on his sinker.  It has taken some time, but DeGraaf at the very least has built himself into a fringe prospect.
   At 23, DeGraaf has no projection remaining.  At the same time, he shows what can happen when a late bloomer adds some velo, and reaps the benefits of professional instruction.  He may have started more than 7 games for Lansing this season if not for the presence of a half dozen or so higher profile arms ahead of him. Stretching him out in Australia makes sense - with the truncated schedule, he only pitches once a week, so added innings likely won't be a concern.  According to Blue Jays Farm Director Gil Kim, DeGraaf's versatility is his greatest strength:
   Josh had a successful season, and he’s a versatile pitcher with good feel for throwing strikes. With his work ethic and makeup, we feel comfortable that Josh can adapt to any role, whether starter or reliever, and think that going forward a strength of his will be the ability to swing.

   Taylor Coach Klein had a fitting tribute for the graduating DeGraaf after his selection by the Blue Jays:
“It was his intelligence that put him head and shoulders above others. He is a very smart player. He knew our system inside and out and the game in general. He was a great teacher to the younger kids.”

   Kudos should also go to DeGraaf's battery mate, Peterborough, ON's own Mike Reeves.  Reeves has not progressed above High A in four seasons since joining the organization, but he kept the game from getting out of hand in the 2nd inning with some excellent blocks of DeGraaf sliders in the dirt, keeping runners from advancing.  Reeves is very agile and athletic behind the plate, and he no doubt was a calming influence on the young pitcher throughout that start.
   The Blue Jays are building a stable full of strong defensive Catchers like Reeves.  AJ Jimenez, whose career has been stalled by injury, may have had his inconsistencies at the plate, but has always been a top notch defender, and with Josh Thole no longer in the picture, has a real shot at becoming Russell Martin's back up in 2017. Reese McGuire, who joined the system at the trade deadline in the Francisco Liriano-Drew Hutchison trade, is probably close to MLB ready in terms of his skills behind the plate.  Danny Jansen, who likely will play a step below McGuire at New Hampshire, has long been lauded for his receiving and pitcher-handling skills.  Max Pentecost has spent little time behind the plate in his pro career because of injuries, but the team sees enough in his athleticism to allow him to continue to Catch next year.  Below Reeves, who caught 53 games for Dunedin in 2016 is Ryan Hissey, who was mostly thought to be a bat-first player, but made tremendous strides defensively this year at Lansing, as well as Javier Hernandez (who may become the best receiver in the organization, if he isn't already), who played at Vancouver last year.  Even Ryan Gold, a 27th round choice out of North Carolina HS ball last June, has drawn raves for his work behind the plate.
  With more and more teams realizing the value strong defensive Catchers can bring to a team, the Blue Jays are building a wealth of players at this position.

   DeGraaf combined with Markham, ON native Jordan Romano on a six-inning no-hitter in July - a game Romano actually took the loss in.  You can read about it here.

   After streaming almost all of its games last year, most ABL teams have had to cut back to one game per series.  MLB, which had provided 75% of the loop's funding since 2010, pulled out of its sponsorship of the ABL this year, and the league has had to cut back both its schedule and it's televised games.
   Still, if you need a baseball fix, the ABL does offer archived games on its YouTube channel, and you can visit the league's website to find out when games will be streamed live.  Canberra is 15 hours ahead of Toronto, so you may be getting up early to watch.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

What to Expect From Mike Ohlman


  The Blue Jays came to terms with free agent minor league C Mike Ohlman last week.
The lanky (6'5", 240) North Carolinian played travel ball with Will Myers, and was a highly regarded prep player.  The Orioles drafted him in the 11th round in 2009 (he had committed to Miami), and signed him to above slot ($995K) money.  There were concerns about his long term future behind the plate, however, as Baseball America noted in their draft report:
 He's tall for a catcher at 6-foot-4, and his slender 200-pound body doesn't seem suited to the position for the long-term, scouts worry. But he has shown excellent athletic ability, and he should be able to remain a catcher at least through college. He has excellent arm strength, but his receiving skills are less advanced than his Florida prep rivals. He has improved his skills behind the plate but has a long way to go in terms of blocking, framing pitches and learning other nuances behind the plate.
   Still, Baltimore added him to their 40-man roster, and he was the O's 15th-ranked prospect after his first pro season, seeming to be headed toward bigger things.  His career took a step backward in 2012, when he missed time due to a spring training car accident, and a second positive test for a recreational drug.  While his receiving skills were still in question, his bat was developing, and he led the Carolina League in hitting in 2013.  Baltimore reportedly like his game-calling skills, but there were still huge concerns about his blocking skills, and by 2014 he was spending time at 1st Base, bringing comparisons to another O's draft pick who was selected as a Catcher, but was eventually moved off the position by the name of Jayson Werth.
   When Ohlman struggled in his first year of AA, the Orioles soured on him as a long-term prospect, and he was DFA'd in January of 2015.  Picked up by the Cardinals, he showed some improvement behind the plate under the tutelage of Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny, a former Gold Glove-winning tall Catcher himself, but his projection had changed to MLB backup.
   In his 8th pro season, he began the year at AA, and finished with AAA, establishing himself as Memphis' everyday Catcher over the last month of the season.  His work with the bat was decent (.280/.333/.464 in 54 games) with Memphis, so I thought I would take a look at some of his body of work this summer.
   Admittedly, watching several innings spread over four games does not give the whole picture, but some aspects of Ohlman's game behind the plate became evident:
    -he is a decent blocker of pitches in the dirt, but his sheer size means that unfolding his large frame costs him some agility, and he takes a split second longer to get to balls that bounce off to the side;
    -his larger size means that pitch framing can be something of a challenge:  while he can get to low pitches in front of him, he has trouble positioning himself in a manner than can help him get extra strikes with just a slight bit of movement.  This is not illusory - Hardball Times has looked into the matter.
   -he does appear to be a good pitch caller and handler of pitchers.  Working with one of the youngest pitching staffs in the Pacific Coast League, he seemed to have a calming influence on struggling starters.
   -pop ups around home plate can be a bit of an adventure for Ohlman.  He had trouble tracking several of them.
   -despite an above average arm, he struggled throwing out base stealers in AAA.  This could be owing to his pitchers' inability to keep runners close, but he skipped throws to 2nd, and generally had trouble controlling the running game.

   At the plate, his swing can be a bit long, but Ohlman offers above average potential power.  His bat has been ahead of his glove for some time, and probably always will be.  There is thought that once he incorporates his lower body into his swing more consistently, he will fulfill that power possibility.

    The acquisition of Ohlman gives the Blue Jays added depth both behind the plate and at 1st.  With A.J. Jimenez now the current favourite to win the back up job to Russell Martin barring any moves by the organization before spring training, that should mean Reese McGuire should get the majority of the reps at Buffalo, with Danny Jansen likely moving up to New Hampshire (after a solid fall campaign in the Arizona Fall League), in order to give Max Pentecost much-needed time at the position with Dunedin.

   Ohlman has made progress with his receiving skills, but it's hard to see him challenging for an MLB job, even as a back up, at spring training this year.  The Blue Jays may look to get him out from behind the plate more often in order to take advantage of his offensive skills.