The Dirt on Drabek’s Debut

No Major League team is currently in possession of as talented a young, Major League starting staff as the Toronto Blue Jays. This season has seen the coming out party for Ricky Romero, occasional ace-type brilliance from Brandon Morrow, and a quiet sub-4 FIP year for Brett Cecil. Last night, the newest horse joined the big league stables as Kyle Drabek made his Major League debut against the Baltimore Orioles. The young right-hander took the loss despite allowing just three runs in six innings, as Jose Bautista could only get to Brad Bergesen once in nine innings.

Drabek’s line (9H/6IP, 8GO/2AO) implies the sort of bad batted ball luck that we often see from sinkerballers. But this was simply not the case, as Drabek was the beneficiary of at least five good defensive plays: Aaron Hill fired a relay throw from DeWayne Wise into an out at home plate; Lyle Overbay turned a great 4-3-6 double play to end an inning; Travis Snider impressively threw out Ty Wigginton at second base; Vernon Wells “robbed” a home run from Adam Jones in right-center; and John Buck threw out Corey Patterson from his knees. We’re talking about multiple runs prevented by the Blue Jays defense, turning Drabek’s day from a Welcome to the Majors moment into a Quality Start.

There’s no question Drabek keeps a defense active. I have often wondered why Drabek’s strikeout rates in the minors weren’t great, why a guy with his stuff would post a career minor league whiff rate of just 7.5. Granted, he gets the groundouts too, but Keith Law just wrote up a minor leaguer with a 93-97 mph fastball, and Baseball America rated his curveball a “70” on the scouting scale, and he’s not striking out a batter an inning? Tonight, I got some indication on why that has been true. Yes, Drabek’s curvball is nasty – just tune into a mid-inning strikeout of Felix Pie on back-to-back curveballs to see the nastiness – but the pitch is missing something. He has, oddly enough, better command than control of the pitch (this is often said the other way around).

To push the point further, all night Drabek showed a really unique ability to bury his curveball in the dirt – it’s a trait that not many curveball pitchers possess at the age of 22. But the skill he doesn’t seem to have is the ability to throw it for strikes. I saw it only twice last night – once to Brian Roberts in the fourth inning, and then again to Matt Wieters in the sixth. The latter was a hanging curveball that Wieters deposited for a left field single. So, my hypothesis is that minor league hitters likely figured this out, and taught themselves (as best they could) to lay off the curveball in the dirt, and let Drabek beat them with the fastball. And that fastball, even at 92-95 mph, is a pitch-to-contact heater for Drabek, as he doesn’t have explosive life up in the zone.

The single he gave up to Corey Patterson in the fourth inning is a perfect example of the way two-seam fastballs lose life when they don’t get down – Drabek left it up, and the pitch went flat, serving a RBI on a platter. When low in the zone, Drabek gets some heavy sink and arm-side run on the pitch. It’s just no surprise that he racks up groundballs at the rate he does. But it’s a pitch that hitters fouled off rather than swung threw often last night, which means his breaking ball will have to really be perfect to raise his strikeout rate to a level that his stuff suggests.

Or, maybe he will start adding strikeouts because of the emergence of his new and mysterious third pitch. No, not the change-up, which was thrown a couple times last night, a waste pitch low and away to lefties. Nowhere in Baseball America’s offseason report, or even Law’s from last week, did we see mention of a pitch that Kyle Drabek threw about 20% of the time last night: a cutter. You can’t blame BA or Law, because a second-inning booth interview of his father Doug Drabek revealed that Dad taught him the pitch in the offseason, and that it’s still coming along.

But wow, does the pitch have potential. A second-inning strikeout of Adam Jones showed off the pitch in all its glory: he commanded a 90 mph pitch with slider movement with two strikes. In fact, at times, he shows great confidence in the pitch: throwing it on three balls at least three times last night. But the confidence is still not in all the right places. His Dad, in the booth interview, said the pitch was implemented as a way to jam left-handed hitters. But like a college pitcher afraid to throw his change-up against aluminum bats, Drabek wouldn’t use it in that fashion last night: back-dooring it to left-handed hitters and using it a chase pitch against right-handers.

With another winter spent between the Blue Jays underrated pitching development team, and working with a former All-Star father, it’s not hard to imagine Drabek arriving to Spring Training next year with some new weapons in tow: better command of the fastball, control of the curveball, faith in the cutter. Not one of those offerings is far away, and if he succeeds in all three areas, he might just be Toronto’s best starter. And, with this group, that’s saying something.



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Mike Gianella
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

There was something awkward about Drabek’s delivery, too. Again, this doesn’t jibe with the scouting reports, but you could see it when you watched the game last night. He doesn’t have the cleanest looking mechanics, which wouldn’t be odd if you weren’t talking about someone with Drabek’s bloodlines and his scouting reports.

Jay
Guest
Jay
5 years 10 months ago

How does he not have clean mechanics? It’s very compact, slight torso twist, and good step towards the plate. There was a video comparing his delivery with his dad’s, and it was the same up until the point that Doug brought his left knee up higher, and his extension towards the plate was a little longer. Nothing awkward about it, seems to be working for him…

James
Guest
James
5 years 10 months ago

Project Prospect says he brings his arm through late to get his good command. This puts stress on his shoulder. They made it seem like a concern.

And his fastball is flat. That is probably why he doesn’t strike too many out. He only has his 2 seamer to set up that curve and cutter.

Bryan Smith
Guest
Bryan Smith
5 years 10 months ago

Flat in general? If that’s what you mean, that is dead wrong. He has really good movement on his fastball down in the zone.

James
Guest
James
5 years 10 months ago

I’m getting my info from another website from spring training and they described his normal 4 seam fastball as one of the flattest pitches they saw in spring training. Don’t blame me.

The Duder
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The Duder
5 years 10 months ago

Nice article. He should be fun to watch.

“He has, oddly enough, better command than control of the pitch (this is often said the other way around)”

I think I know what you mean by this, but could you spell it out for me? Thanks.

The Duder
Guest
The Duder
5 years 10 months ago

I think I’m getting bogged down here on something.

“control is the ability to throw a pitch for strikes”

So, if a pitcher has control of his curve, he can throw it in a 3 ball count and feel comfortable. Or in other words, he has good confidence that he can put it over the plate.

“Drabek has command of his curveball in the sense that he buries the pitch remarkably well”

He has command of it in that he can prevent losing it up in the zone, or hanging it, IE, he can bury it or keep it down, but he can’t necessarily throw it for strikes.

Therefore control implies more skill than command.

“He has, oddly enough, better command than control of the pitch (this is often said the other way around).”

So, is it often the case that people have better control than command? Wouldn’t control imply the ability to command?

Sorry if this is silly or redundant, I’m just trying to think through it.

The Duder
Guest
The Duder
5 years 10 months ago

Ah.. that is where I was getting confused, but I think I’ve got it. He shows good command of his deuce, as he can pretty precisely keep it in the right spots out of the zone low, but strangely he wasn’t showing (or the catcher wasn’t calling) the ability to throw it for a strike (ie control).

But because he shows the ability to command it down, there’s a great chance he possesses the ability to truly command/control it everywhere and throw it for strikes in the future.

So, would you call the ability to consistently spot a pitch true command? Or great control? Just plain nasty?

Jim Lahey
Guest
Jim Lahey
5 years 10 months ago

Drabek sounds like a great video game pitcher.

tdotsports1
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

I have always been curious to see why Drabek hasn’t racked up the K’s throughout his minor league career (especially most recently) it seems he was a Clay Buchholz type (in the minor league’s though) which doesn’t bode well for future success with some luck involved or as Smith suggests, adding to his arsenal.

Either way, another solid #2 or #3 starter in the making, if he progresses.

I do not see ace material though, which is a rare commodity I know, but a lot of Jays fans I think are counting on him developing into a pure #1 because he was hyped after being acquired to lessen the blow of losing Roy.

tdotsports1
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

*without luck

Wizard of Woz
Guest
Wizard of Woz
5 years 10 months ago

I think you’re selling Doug a little short. He’s not just an All-Star, but a Cy Young winner (1990)

mbrady16
Member
mbrady16
5 years 10 months ago

His fastball seems inconsistent, like you said Bryan. He threw a 2-seamer with unbelievably late break at 95 to strike a batter out, but gave up that big hit to Patterson on a high flat one, and I also saw another flat fastball at 92 in the mlb.com clips that did induce a groundball DP. If he could consistently harness his good fastball (the K was against Wieters I think) he’ll be really good.

Torgen
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

Being able to throw a curveball in the dirt consistently seems like a disadvantage with the Jays’ catching staff.

Bryan Smith
Guest
Bryan Smith
5 years 10 months ago

This is actually a good point. John Buck had a couple scoot thru the 5-hole last night. We’ll see how Arencibia receives it.

TORque
Guest
TORque
5 years 10 months ago

“We’ll see how Arencibia receives it.”

If Cito ever plays Arencibia that is.

Torgen
Guest
Torgen
5 years 10 months ago

Just 16 more games and Cito won’t have anything to say in the matter.

gdc
Guest
gdc
5 years 10 months ago

I looked at your first sentence and compared Romero/Marcum/Morrow/Cecil (Drabek) vs Cahill/Gonzalez/Andreson/Braden (Mazzaro) of Oakland and they are quite similar in age, MLB experience, and effectiveness. I think both teams are looking up and would not trade their staffs for the other’s.

TJ Caino
Guest
TJ Caino
5 years 10 months ago

The kid is still 22, and has a lot of develoment to come. I still anticipate them keeping him down at the start of next year.

I was very happy with his first game. Agreed that his control wasn’t the greatest, and that his fast ball wasn’t perfectly consistant. But the fact that he could come in, and perform as he did, with those flaws to his game bodes well for his future.

control, command and consistancy with continue to develop, as his arsenal is still a work in progress. I’m sure they will have his working on spotting his curve in the zone, and refining his change up also.

(I would be happy if they gave him the Brett Cecil treatment: all fast balls and change ups in spring training! though that would not really help him get better at spotting the curve in the zone.)

Bgaw
Guest
Bgaw
5 years 10 months ago

I watched his start too, and while this is somewhat anecdotal (can’t really throw a pitch f/x chart into a reply here,) it seemed that he was able to hit the zone when he wanted to, but when he missed, he often missed badly, and usually it was with his cutter/fastball. Consequently, Baltimore didn’t have to work too hard, and didn’t need to worry about laying off stuff out of the zone.

Matty Brown
Guest
Matty Brown
5 years 10 months ago

As a Jays fan I am so ecstatic about our pitching staff. It is hard to imagine that after trading the best damn pitcher in baseball away, we somehow manage to have one of the best rotations in the game; and they are ALL still improving…

Also, his curve-ball made me gasp.

tdotsports1
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

My guess is Toronto will take the biggest one year leap in the Fangraphs ORG rankings…

brent in Korea
Guest
brent in Korea
5 years 10 months ago

swing through/swing thru/swing threw

one of these isn’t like the others ^^

frank
Guest
frank
5 years 10 months ago

Nice summary. Also nice job not just going down the bad luck route with the hit total which unfortunately is all too common on this site.

On minor quibble – he allowed ‘just’ 3 runs in 6 innings? You make it sound like that deserved a W or ND and he shouldn’t have got a loss. A 4.50 ERA pitcher is a middle of the road pitcher and will lose some of those 3R/6IP games.

frank
Guest
frank
5 years 10 months ago

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that DRabek will be middle of the road just that 6IP and 3R outings will rack up their fair share of losses and won’t always be Wins or ND’s

Bryan Smith
Guest
Bryan Smith
5 years 10 months ago

Thanks. There was meant to be a tease on the “Quality Start” idea in there, but I half-edited it out.

As far as the “bad luck route with the hit total”, I think I’m as guilty of it as anybody, specifically with pitching prospects. Last night was a nice reminder that a groundball pitcher allowing a bunch of hits doesn’t HAVE to mean that he was unlucky.

Josh
Guest
Josh
5 years 10 months ago

I checked the vid of his start on mlb.com, the breaker is true filth, a nose-diver. I also noticed on his 2nd or 3rd K, the K pitch was what appeared to be a two-seamer…I had a good old-fashioned double take when I saw it, looked to be headed straight to the outside corner but broke what looked to be about near a foot off the outside edge to a lefty, don’t know who it was but man that thing looked scary. Good things I saw from the baby Drabek.

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