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What to Do with Drabek?

Kyle Drabek got his first all-important pitcher win since May 16 last night as the Blue Jays beat the Royals 8-5. Coming off of a disaster start against Cleveland last week, it came as a bit of a relief. However, Drabek (23) was hardly impressive. With three walks and no strikeouts, Drabek arguably pitched worse than Kansas City’s starter, the legendary Vin Mazzaro (three strikeouts, one walk, one home run, and laughable defensive plays by Melky Cabrera, Matt Treanor (Treanor!) and Jeff Francoeur). It’s been a rough season all around for a pitcher some were touting as a potential front-of-the-rotation starter. What should the Jays do about it?

In short: Drabek, who came to Toronto as part of the Roy Halladay trade, has been terrible this season. A 4.98 ERA, 4.96 FIP, and 4.97 xFIP might not seem completely worthless, but when one takes the 2011 run environment into account, he’s pretty much been replacement level. He doesn’t seem to be suffering from random variation on either balls in play (.304) or fly balls (8.7% HR/FB rate) — if anything, those numbers could be worse. The problem has been his walk rate. Drabek has walked more batters (48) than he has struck out (43). Last night, the Blue Jays announcers tried to point out (in what they admitted was a cherry-picking way) that his ERA wasn’t so bad if the Cleveland start was discounted. However, even without that start, he still would have walked more batters than he struck out. Drabek has only struck out more batters than he was walked in four of his thirteen starts this season.

For a pitcher who had decent, but hardly dominating strikeout numbers in the minors (other than 60 innings in High-A in 2009), Drabek obviously needs to have good control. In his brief major-league stint in 2010, he managed a good walk rate (2.65) and a very impressive ground-ball rate (62%). The ground-ball rate isn’t bad this year, but, at 44.9%, isn’t much better than average. The strikeout rate isn’t good this season, but it’s obviously the walks that are killing him. Last night it seemed as if he started every plate appearance at 2-0, and the whole season has pretty much been like that. The BIS data-based plate-discipline stats say he’s only been in the zone 33.8% of the time. That’s slightly more than last season’s brief debut, but that’s what makes things a bit more scary: hitters are now swinging at only 39.4% of his pitches, which goes a long way to explaining Drabek’s exploding walk rate.

I don’t know exactly what the cause of the walks problem is: if hitters have already figured out what pitches to lay off of, if the pitches just aren’t as good this season, or what. The question is what the Jays are (or should be) doing about it. They have no reason to keep Drabek in the majors if he doesn’t need to be. This is a rebuilding year for them, and even if they were in contention, Drabek isn’t helping with that in his current state. They sent Travis Snider down after a much shorter stint of bad performance, why not Drabek? The Jays have a reputation for good pitching instruction, and perhaps they feel that is best given at the major league level in Drabek’s case. That’s a possibility, and why I titled this post “What to Do with Drabek?” rather than “What Are They Doing with Drabek?” I’m not sure what Drabek’s potential is. I was never that high on Drabek, but the Blue Jays obviously like him. But if he figures prominently in their plans — as he clearly does, and he should — perhaps sending him down into a less-pressurized environment where he can focus on the issues that have been so problematic this season is something they should consider sooner rather than later. After all, as bad as Drabek has been so far, as Buddy Bell once said, things can always get worse.