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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.