If you were watching the Astros series and wondering who this “Ryan Borucki” person was who suddenly appeared out of the Mariners bullpen, well, that’s on us because we were supposed to write up the transaction this past weekend and just...didn’t. But anyway, first a little bit about the trade: the Blue Jays designated the lefty reliever for assignment back on May 31, and the Mariners, who need lefty options in the ‘pen, were quick to pounce. At the time he was traded, the 28-year-old Borucki was the longest-tenured member of the Blue Jays organization, having been drafted by the Jays back in 2012 out of his suburban Chicago high school.
For many years Borucki worked as a starter in Toronto’s system until making his debut with the big league club in June of 2018, pitching well to close out a year where the Blue Jays went 73-89 and wound up fourth in the division, only ahead of the 115-loss Orioles, and seemingly securing himself a spot at the back end of the rotation for next season. However, a nagging issue with bone spurs in his pitching elbow kept him sidelined for all but six innings in 2019, and while he returned in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, his command didn’t.
Borucki had always showcased plus command in the minors, so this new development has been troubling, especially when it lingered into the 2021 season, albeit down from a dreadful 16% walk rate to a still-bad-but-acceptably-so 11%. Unfortunately, in 2022 that number has jumped back up to over 15% in just a handful of innings, with a predictably-terrible ERA pushing 10 to go along with it. With those command struggles came a dramatic increase in his HR/FB rate, as more often than not, he’d fall behind batters and wind up leaving something juicy over the plate, as witnessed painfully when Álvarez crushed a 2-0 slider approximately eight thousand feet in the air last night. I’ll save linking it here, but when you search up Ryan Borucki on MLB Film Room, every highlight from this season is of him getting torched somehow, and three of them are of painfully massive blasts being hit off him: Álvarez’s, the tying and go-ahead runs from that game against the Angels that LAA wound up losing anyway, and a ridiculous Paul Goldschmidt walk-off grand slam. Ouch. Ouch, ouch, ouch.
Looking at Borucki’s stuff, though, it’s clear what piqued the Mariners’ interest: despite his struggles, his fastball has heavy sink, averages around 95 MPH and can reach 97, plus he has a cutter, a slider, and a changeup—all from the left side. The slider, his main pitch, is a high-variance pitch: he uses it a lot, and it gets a ton of whiffs—like, in the 50% range—but it’s also the pitch he’s given up all of his home runs on this season, and one he’s had the most trouble commanding since returning from injury. But when it’s on, it’s one of the best pitches any reliever throws.
Here’s an example I picked entirely at random, demonstrating the slider when it is Looking Good in the Neighborhood (of the plate):
That’s real nice! It stays high enough to look tempting but not so high it’s crush-able, then dives away late. You can see Ohtani attempting to time it up with his toe tap and then getting absolutely bamboozled by the pitch. However, there is one tiny issue: because of the extreme boomerang movement of that slider, Borucki is extremely effective against lefties, but less so against righties (although one of Julio’s early strikeouts did come at the hands of Borucki during the Toronto series, when he whiffed right over the top of the slider). Righties are another story, and the reason he has to have that changeup, which is currently a meh pitch, not the whiff-getter a changeup should be. As it is, Borucki’s career FIP against righties is over a full run higher than it is against lefties, so continuing to refine the changeup to get righties out will be another thing to work on with Seattle’s pitching coaches, along with getting more whiffs on his sinker—for all its velocity, it has a pretty terrible (like, single digits) whiff rate.
Since Borucki has struggled so mightily, the return was relatively light: INF Tyler Keenan, sadly one of John’s Guys, who was taken in the fourth round of the pandemic-shortened draft in 2020 out of Ole Miss. Keenan was pitched as a slugging corner infielder who’s probably more first base than third base, but a prohibitively high strikeout rate in Everett last year (37%) hampered his progress and he spent 2022 repeating the level, which is just a lot of Everett in April for one player to take. Keenan improved in his second try at Everett and was running a wRC+ of 119 at the time of the trade, but the power has yet to really show up in pro ball. The Blue Jays would have had plenty of time to suss out his abilities, though, as the Vancouver Canadians share the NWL with Everett.
Admittedly, this isn’t the sexiest acquisition: long-tenured starter-turned-reliever with an extensive injury history and command issues. However, this is a kind of pitcher-reclamation project Seattle has taken on many times before and had success with, and the raw materials Borucki has to work with are a tick more interesting than the standard waiver-wire fare. In joining the Mariners, Borucki gets a fresh start at age 28 in his second organization ever, with new ideas and new voices and techniques to guide him, and he’ll have the camaraderie of Seattle’s other Isle Of Misfit Pitchers out in the bullpen to help him settle in.