B.C Product Bouchey Aims for the Big Leagues

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csplusbaseball.com/Niall O’Donohoe photo

The Blue Jay selected RHP Brayden Bouchey, a product of the Vancouver-area tourist hub of White Rock (seconds from the U.S. border), in the 33rd round of the 2016 draft from Louisiana-Monroe.

A starter for most of his two seasons at ULM, Bouchey was moved to the bullpen after the draft.  After a solid pro debut at Bluefield last year in which he fanned 33% of the hitters he faced, Bouchey had an up-and-down first half of the season pitching for Vancouver, but had a lights-out second half and playoff that bodes well for his future.

We caught up to Bouchey as he came home from a workout.  Like most minor leaguers, he has to balance getting his training in with a part-time job.

While in high school, Bouchey pitched for the Langley Blaze, a travel team that has had 34 players drafted by MLB since 2001, and whose alumni include Scott Mathieson, Tyson Gillies, and Brett Lawrie.  Playing for the Blaze exposed Bouchey to a number of U.S schools at showcase events in Arizona, and it was at one of those showcases that he got connected to Odessa, a Junior College in West Texas.  After a year at Odessa, however, Bouchey was looking for a change:

I went there for a year, but there was a coaching change, and it just wasn’t challenging enough for me, and I figured I would put some feelers out there if I could get a scholarship after just a year of JC, and I was lucky enough that I ended up talking to the pitching coach at Louisiana Monroe (a school in the Sun Belt Conference)…………it just worked out from there.

Bouchey had a successful sophomore season at Louisiana-Monroe, and an even more successful summer, where he was a Great Lakes Summer League All Star and Pitcher of the Year.  Bouchey was the ace of the Warhawks’ rotation (he threw a pair of 12-strikeout games that year), but he ran out of gas and his draft stock tumbled:

I was talking to  couple of teams….but then I started struggling mid-way through the season, and didn’t have the finish to the season that I wanted, so I think that dropped my stock….but I had continued to talk to the Blue Jays – Gerald Turner was the scout, he had seen me pitch a few times when I was in Texas, so I was talking to him throughout the draft, and I was lucky enough to get drafted by the team I grew up watching.

Bouchey knew that being drafted by the Blue Jays meant that he would likely spend some time playing in his hometown:

Going into the draft, I knew there was a slim shot I would get sent to Vancouver that first year…..going into Spring Training this year, I knew that was the most likely situation.

Pitching in Vancouver was an affair the whole Bouchey family became part of:

Being so far away the last four years, not a whole lot of my whole extended family or friends have been able to see me pitch….it was awesome in that aspect – get to do it for the people who supported me.

Both my parents came to every home game….one of my sisters lives in London, England, and the other is going to school in Windsor, Ontario, so they both got to come back for a bit and saw me play a couple of games….I have a lot of family on Vancouver Island, and they made the ferry ride over….my dad’s side of the family is local, so they were able to get to a lot of games.

But playing in front of all of those familiar eyes, Bouchey came to learn, was something of a distraction.  He admits that he may have pressed too much in trying to impress the home fans:

This year……I didn’t have my usual mindset – I put pressure on myself, I have high expectations of myself to being with, and pitching in front of people that I know, I think I didn’t stick to my strengths on the mound….it sucks to fail, but now I know what works for me – I didn’t go through any mechanical changes, it was just pitch selection, then I started locating better, started throwing my curve for strikes more often.

But starting with a July 21st outing, Bouchey began to rely on his fastball and his curve, and NWL hitters had trouble squaring him up:  over his next 14 appearances, Bouchey gave up runs in only two of them, as he became a trusted middle relief arm in Manager Rich Miller’s bullpen.

It was great to be one of the guys out of the pen down the stretch and in the playoffs. We lost a bunch of our top guys out of the bullpen who moved up to Lansing earlier in the year, to see it work out and the bullpen guys have success was pretty cool.  

In the playoffs, Bouchey was perfect.  In three outings, he tossed 6 perfect frames, fanning 9.  His three-inning, nine-up, nine-down work in Game One of the final vs Eugene settled things down after the C’s had scored 4 in the top of the 5th to take the lead, a game they would go on to win and help them gain a split in the series before returning home.  Bouchey’s two perfect frames in the 7th and 8th in Game Four propelled Vancouver onto the league title.

As befits an accounting major, Bouchey is quite analytical, and credited the C’s coaching staff for giving the team the rest they needed to stay sharp for the final, especially after the long bus ride back to Vancouver for Game 4, played the day after Game Three in Eugene:

It wasn’t ideal to be on a bus for 10 hours, but I think the coaching staff did a good job of realizing that wasn’t an easy thing to do…we still did BP, but coming down the stretch,  there wasn’t as much mandatory early work….pitcher’s conditioning was optional in the final series….if you’ve been doing it all year, four days off at the end isn’t going to kill you…I think as a team and as a coaching staff they did a good job of managing how much work we put in before games.

And on Pitching in Nat Bailey Stadium, a Pitcher-friendly park, where the sea-level air tends to keep balls in play that might fly out of other places:

Vancouver is different from a lot of other parks in the league.  The ball doesn’t fly as well…it’s go different dimensions than most fields.  The ball doesn’t fly out to right or centre very well.  Our team did a good job of adjusting to that and learning how to play at that field early in the year.  Kacy Clemens said it pretty well, that it’s always in the back of a hitter’s mind that playing in theat park you’re not going to have power numbers as good as other guys.

At 6’6″ Bouchey gets a good downward plane on his fastball.  He pounded the bottom of the strike zone in the Game One win against Eugene – so much so that it was easy to assume that he throws a two-seamer.  Such is not the case:

I don’t throw a 2-seam….it’s just natural run and downhill plane from my release point and getting on top of the ball….my bread-and-butter is my curveball, and down the stretch I only threw those two.  At the start of the season, I was working on a slider, but it just doesn’t fit into my pitch repertoire as well, because I can throw my curve and fastball off of each other because the spin is the same….the difference on the curve is because of the top spin.  I throw a change every once in a while…it’s not as consistent as I’d like it to be, but it has taken good strides in the last year…I’m starting to get the feel for it.

With an over-the-top delivery, Bouchey gets some deception with the late release point caused by his size.  His curve is thrown from the same arm slot, and profiles as a potentially plus pitch, because it keeps hitters from sitting on that fastball.  With two strikes, he can elevate the fastball to generate swings and misses.  Bouchey’s fastball sits at 88-92, and his curve offers good separation at 78-80.  Things that stood out about his 2017 season, despite the slow start:  a 14.4% swinging strike rate, a 50% groundball rate, and a line drive rate of only 10% (a league low for Pitchers with over 30 IP).  Hitters had a difficult time elevating the ball on him.

Bouchey is looking forward to full season ball next year, and is hopeful of skipping a level to Dunedin – with the arms ahead of him, and with decent fellow Vancouver relievers like Travis Bergen, Orlando Pascual, and William Ouellette in camp, that may be a tall order.  But he is developing into an OTTO – a once-through-the-order guy who can give a team multiple innings before turning things over to the back of the pen.   If he can carry the success from 2017 over to next season, even if he starts at Lansing, he doesn’t promise to be there long.  The traditional track for relievers has been along the failed-starter path, but there seems to be a new trend – some teams are beginning to stockpile guys who fit the relief model, and allowing them to further develop their stuff in the low minors.  The Blue Jays are one of those teams, and Bouchey may be part of a wave that hits Toronto in 2019 or 2020.

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Blue Jays Breakout Pitching Prospect Candidates

Trying to determine which Pitching prospects in the organization might have a breakout season in 2018 is more difficult than it is for position players.

This administration has proven that they’re not afraid of promoting relievers to multiple levels over the course of the season, but with pitch limits a factor, they’re more conservative with starters.  A season like Kendall Graveman’s  (5) or Daniel Norris’  (4) in 2014, when both pitched at a number of levels, just doesn’t seem likely with this management group.

There are several Pitchers who could break through this season, however:

RHP T.J. Zeuch

Zeuch is an obvious candidate to have a break out season.  Shut down in May with shoulder soreness, he injured a hamstring during rehab, and didn’t return until August.

He rebounded nicely during Arizona Fall League play, getting the start in the championship game.  Zeuch’s featured pitch is a bowling ball sinker, which he gets a great downward plane on.  When he is locating that pitch, hitters have an extremely difficult time squaring him up.

Zeuch will start the season in AA, and if he stays healthy, could move up fairly quickly.  He could even find himself in the back of the Blue Jays rotation later in the season.

Emerson Jimenez RHP

   Originally signed as an IF by the Rockies, he reached AA in his sixth year in the organization this year.  After posting a .238/.267/.305 line in his career, the Rockies released him in mid-May.   He decided to give Pitching a try, and the Blue Jays signed him a month later.

Sent to the Gulf Coast League, Jimenez regularly hit 99 with his fastball, and the complex league hitters were no match for him, as he fanned 15 in 9 innings.  Exposed to the Rule 5 draft, there was even speculation that a team might take him earlier this month.

While that would have been a huge leap for a team, it shows how valued Jimenez’ arm is, and the Blue Jays will likely challenge him this season.  Improving his command and developing a second pitch will be necessary for Jimenez to get hitters out at higher levels.  While he may start the season in Extended, it’s not hard to see Jimenez move quickly through the system, and the Blue Jay may have another difficult 40-man decision to make with him next fall.

Justin Maese RHP

Maese reached full season ball in only his second pro season in 2016, but a shoulder problem and command issues led to a sideways 2017.

When he’s healthy, Maese pounds the bottom of the strike zone, and keeps hitters off-balance with a three pitch mix.  He experienced an uptick in velocity this year, touching 97.   An excellent athlete, Maese repeats his delivery and fields his position well.

Maese missed all of June and July, and was shut down for the season after his second start in August.  He will likely begin the season under the watchful eyes of the team’s medical staff at Dunedin.  A return to health, finding his command again, and maintaining that increase in velo would allow Maese to move up in a hurry.

Bouchey
Brayden Bouchey Twitter photo

Travis Bergen LHP/Brayden Bouchey RHP

Bergen missed most of his first two pro seasons after being drafted in 2015, and didn’t begin his 2017 season until late July.  He was a mainstay in Manager Rich Miller’s bullpen down the stretch and in the playoffs, and both he and White Rock, BC native Bouchey were  lights out in relief.

Bergen formerly had a cross-fire delivery, but his mechanics are now more conventional.  He throws 92-94, with a slider that shows great depth.  The 6’6″ Bouchey throws from an over-the-top delivery, giving him a good downward plane on all of his pitches.  His size gives him some late life on his fastball – Bouchey has fanned over 30% of the hitters he’s faced in two minor league seasons.

Both should begin the season in Lansing’s bullpen.  If they pitched like they did over the last month of the season, neither will be there for long.