It’s June 7th, 2013. Buddy Borden is a junior at UNLV and is intently watching his computer screen (like other draft junkies across the country who were not eligible to be drafted) with his family, hoping that his name would be called. In the 7th round, the celebrations would begin as the Pirates announce they selected Buddy Borden, right-handed pitcher, out of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
After Borden’s adviser called him to offer congratulations, the next call was from the Pirates’ area scout who recommended they draft him, Jason Cooper. Borden had only one sit down with Cooper, who called him the day before the draft to get some basic draft questions out of the way regarding bonus demands. It was Cooper’s only year as a scout with the Pirates (he’s been with the Cubs since October 2013), but he still checks in with Borden via text occasionally. As Borden told TPOP in an email interview, “I’ve always found him [to be] a great guy, which is just a testament to how the Pirates value the character and invest in the people they trust to make organizational decisions.”
Fast forward 18 months. It’s now December 12th, 2014. Buddy Borden was coming off a very solid first full season with the Pirates and their West Virginia Power affiliate. He made 26 starts, pitched 128 innings with 122 strikeouts and 48 walks, compiling a 3.16 ERA along the way. Everything was great and he was looking ahead to pitching for the Bradenton Marauders in the High-A Florida State League in 2015. He got a call that day that said he’d be pitching in the Florida State League, but not with the Pirates’ affiliate. Borden had been traded to the Tampa Bay Rays for utilityman Sean Rodriguez.
“I was in complete shock,” Borden said. “I was just traded for an established major league player and I had no control and no say in the process, there was no conversation like ‘no, I’d like to stay here’ or ‘yes, I’d love to be moved’. It was one of those things you can’t prepare for or expect because you never even realize it’s a possibility until it happens to you. It opened my eyes to the business side of baseball. The Major League club needed a veteran utility guy and I was able to provide them with that. It was a nice feeling knowing another organization saw some value in me, but it was a bit disappointing leaving the people I had played with for a few years and had grown very close with.”
I remember hearing about the trade and being somewhat disappointed. I felt Borden showed a lot of potential in his first full season and felt the return for the light-hitting (at the time) Sean Rodriguez was underwhelming. After all, Rodriguez was coming off a 2014 season where he triple slashed a .211/.258/.443 line and was worth -0.2 fWAR. His 2015 season with the Pirates begat a line of .246/.281/.362 that didn’t inspire much confidence, either. When a team trades a prospect, it is extremely rare that the prospect ever returns, so I consigned myself to just periodically checking on Borden’s progress through the Rays’ system.
The highlight of Borden’s pro baseball career to date occurred on May 13th, 2015. In what would be a shortened 7-inning game due to a doubleheader that day, Buddy Borden threw a no-hitter, walking only two batters along the way. As if a no-hitter wasn’t rare enough, the game also featured Borden’s Charlotte Stone Crabs defense turning a triple play to help him in his quest.
“The triple play was just one of the phenomenal plays made for me that day. I wish I could take more credit saying my stuff was the best it had ever been that day, but my defense helped me a lot and deserve most of the credit. They made all the routine plays, a sliding catch, my catcher calling a great game, but a triple play makes throwing a no hitter a little easier,” he said.
You sometimes hear of pitchers being so in the zone on the mound that they don’t realize they have a no-hitter going until the last couple of innings. That wasn’t the case with Borden. “I realized I had it the whole time, I just totally forgot it was only a seven inning game, so I didn’t celebrate after the last out was made. The only thing going through my mind was to continue attacking and make them put it in play so I could keep my pitch count down.”
On his end, Borden delivered a solid 2015 season for the Rays’ High A affiliate, the Charlotte Stone Crabs. His walk rate increased and his strikeout rate regressed, but the low-90’s heater and good curve were still there. While the Rays and the Pirates both swim in the shallow end of the payroll pool, they both try to find talent in every avenue possible. However, they do differ in their overarching organizational pitching philosophies.
“The philosophies were similar in attacking, but the Rays like attacking much more with different combinations of pitches and more off speed pitches and really harp on throwing down and away fastballs. They also like the pitchers on the first base side of the rubber, with the reason being to make it easier to throw the down and away fastball. The Pirates like attacking with fastballs until the hitters prove they can hit it. They also make it a priority to establish the inner half to make the hitter uncomfortable and let our off speed pitches play off the fastball. The Pirates still love the fastball away, but it is not the most important factor. The biggest difference I see is how the attack, all-out, killer mentality on the mound is preached in every meeting we have with the Pirates. Being a person who strives to achieve that every game, I love it.”
The 2016 minor league season saw Borden continue to move one rung up the ladder, this time to the Rays’ Double-A affiliate, the Montgomery Biscuits. Last season, the wheels came off the wagon for Borden for the first time in his pitching career. He attributes it to a last minute change by the Rays. “I got moved to the bullpen the last day of spring training and it was a total shock, especially since in my mind I had proven I could do my job every fifth day as a starter. Learning a bullpen routine was difficult for me, so looking back I was bitter and kind of angry. I think that negative, disappointed mindset leaked into my play.”
It’s rare that an organization releases a player of some note midseason, but that’s what happened on June 10th, 2016 when the Montgomery Biscuits released Buddy Borden. For the majority of players, that’s it. Borden was 24, he reached Double-A and his team gave up on him. Some may try to latch on with an independent league team, but most just fade back into the non-baseball real world and figure out their next move. It’s exceptionally rare that a released player gets picked up two weeks later, especially when the team calling is his original drafting team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“Two days after being let go, the Pirates’ pitching coordinator, Scott Mitchell, reached out and asked my plans, and asked if I’d like to come back to the Pirates. I immediately screamed yes, just because I loved the people, coaches, players and environment so much. He said he would talk to Larry Broadway [Pirates’ Director of Minor League Operations] and Kyle Stark [Pirates’ Assistant General Manager] and see what would happen, but he didn’t make any promises, which I obviously understood. Larry just asked how I was doing as a person, asked about my family, how I was mentally at the time, and asked if I was excited to be a Bucco again. This is what makes me love the Pirates so much. They asked all those personal things that define a person before they ask baseball questions. He told me congrats on coming back, they were excited to have me back, and they would have me on the next plane out to Florida for a physical and signing.”
The remainder of the 2016 season would be spent at High-A Bradenton, which was a notch lower on the minor league ladder than where Borden was pitching that year, but it’s because the Pirates’ minor league camp is located there and he could be evaluated by more eyes. Borden’s surface numbers were not great, especially his 7.23 ERA, but it was more of a re-calibration than pitching to impress.
Borden is back at Double-A this year with the Altoona Curve and he’s strictly a reliever at this point. But now, he’s in a better place mentality about it. “I’ve found a routine that I think works for me. At this point I’m doing whatever they need me to do. I’m trying to be the best teammate I can and fill whatever role I’m needed in that night.” That’s a player that has found maturity through failure. One who has seen the business side of baseball in a trade and the on-field side with poor performances.
Borden is ready for a taste of success. He sees his fellow 2013 draftees, Adam Frazier (6th round) and Chad Kuhl (9th round), getting established in the Majors. Borden is a devout Christian and mentioned that if it’s God’s plan, he’ll join them one day in Pittsburgh at PNC Park. It’s that faith that keeps Borden going through the grind of a minor league season.
“The conditions get better and better every level you move up, but for the most part you are living in less than ideal apartments or houses, with little money after monthly expenses (clubhouse dues, bills, unexpected expenses, back home expenses, food and rent). The grind gets to you, but it’s a grind and situation millions would love to be in. So I’m forever grateful for it. Faith is something that will always be there for me. Just knowing that someone loved us that much to give his son’s life for our sins puts many things in perspective for me. I think when I struggle with pitching, I read scripture and think of how it can apply to my athletic life. It always seems to help me and make me feel better that no matter how bad things are or how hard things are, I still have that never ending love.”
There’s no guarantees for anything in life, but that especially is true in baseball. Borden could be one injury away from his career being over. He may not advance past Double-A this year. The Pirates may not choose to bring him back in 2018. But Borden and his belief in a well-located fastball being a pitcher’s greatest weapon has an intangible quality that I hope will succeed and allow him to toe the rubber at PNC Park one day. The next bolded date in his pitching life will hopefully be for his Major League debut.