For most of 2018, any positive noise about the Toronto Blue Jays has been oriented to the future. Teoscar Hernandez — picked up for Francisco Liriano last July 3 — has proven to be a solid piece for the team. The farm system boasts four prospects in the top 100, led by baseball’s No. 1 prospect in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. While injured currently, Guerrero has posted video-game numbers at Double-A, and even the slightest possibility of his call-up to Toronto has sent fans into hysterics. With the AL East pretty well set for the playoffs, looking ahead is an entirely realistic plan for the Blue Jays.
Two weeks ago, another young Blue Jay made his major-league debut. Ryan Borucki comes from a baseball family: his father played 600 games in the minors and was a one-time teammate of Ryne Sandberg’s. The younger Borucki was a 15th-round pick in 2012 and signed for $426,000 to forego his commitment to Iowa. After a rough start to the career — including Tommy John surgery and shoulder pain that led to lost 2015 campaign — he turned it around after a demotion to Low-A in 2016 and shot up three levels to Triple-A in 2017. After a middling start to the 2018 season in Triple-A, Borucki got called out to fill out a rotation plagued by struggles and injury.
In his first three starts, Borucki faced the Astros, Yankees, and Tigers. Despite the quality of those first two clubs, Borucki conceded only five total runs in 20 innings while recording a 16:6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Nor does it get any easier: Borucki is scheduled to start tonight against Boston.
At first glance, Borucki’s arsenal doesn’t seem like the sort capable of thwarting two of the league’s highest-scoring offenses. His sinking fastball averages around 92 mph and his slider is generally seen as pedestrian. However, he does have one weapon that could become one of the best pitches of its kind in the majors.
In the incredibly small sample provided by three starts, Borucki’s changeup has been impressive. He’s given up only two singles on 19 balls put in play, which is obviously good. More important, however, is what’s happened when batters haven’t put the ball in play. Borucki has used the pitch to record six strikeouts and a 37.5% whiffs-per-swing mark, which would rank 14th in baseball among qualified pitchers, between Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom, and alongside Carlos Carrasco, Chris Sale, and Stephen Strasburg in the top 15. Clearly, this changeup is a weapon that has helped drive Borucki’s early success.
The Borucki changeup wasn’t always a known and respected quantity. In his draft year, Baseball America focused more on the life of the fastball. Of Borucki’s secondary pitches, BA noted that he was still “refining his slider and changeup.” That has changed for Borucki as a professional, however. For this year’s Blue Jays list, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel put a 60 on the changeup, a plus grade. Despite his relatively modest pedigree, Borucki has cultivated an MLB-quality weapon.
Plus pitches are capable not only of helping to prevent runs but also captivating the collective imagination. Consider the fascination with Aroldis Chapman‘s fastball or Clayton Kershaw’s curveball, for example. Both pitches seem to expand our sense of what the human body can do. But while plus fastballs and breaking pitches usually get their due, the changeup (anecdotally speaking) seems to receive less in the way of sizzling internet GIFs. As Borucki’s changeup isn’t of the drop-off-the-table variety, you could be forgiven if you haven’t seen the pitch in action.
While Borucki doesn’t light up the radar guns with his change (84 mph), he generates a high amount of backspin with it. His mark of 2049 RPMs — on an axis of 144 degrees — comes in at 23rd in baseball (minimum 50 changeups thrown). On average, the pitch moves 8.5 inches to the arm side and 7 inches vertically. That arm-side movement is especially impressive considering not only how much backspin his pitch is generating but also the low three-quarter arm slot that Borucki takes.
We can see this movement clearly in his first start, as he gets Marwin Gonzalez to reach out of the zone for a pitch off the outside edge of the plate.
You’ll notice that, due to the exceptional vertical movement — itself largely a product of the backspin on the pitch — Borucki’s changeup sits a little higher in the zone than many non-fastball out pitches, especially on the outer half of the plate. That pattern was borne out in the Astros game, the pitch generating multiple fly outs on locations up and away to right-handers.
Overall, Borucki follows that general pattern of keeping the ball higher on the outer half, generating a number of weak fly balls on those offerings, while the buried pitches on the inner half result in whiffs or balls on the ground. Jake Marisnick was forced to contend with this sequence himself, just three pitches after Gonzalez went chasing.
In addition to its movement and effective location, Borucki’s changeup benefits from being highly deceptive. He throws it with arm speed highly similar to his sinker, and as such, many outlets have praised him for making the changeup seem very much like his sinker out of the hand. This deception not only accentuates the effectiveness of the changeup, but it allows the sinker’s movement and life of its own to play up beyond the raw stuff.
Borucki is far from a finished product. As Kiley McDaniel notes, he will have to develop his slider to get lefties out. To this point, it has flashed average at best. Despite that, Borucki possesses a plus pitch that he is able to locate effectively and deploy in conjunction with his sinker. Even if his upside is merely that of a fourth or fifth starter, baseball fans everywhere should be grateful that we have a new plus pitch to enjoy watching.
Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.