For Kyle Drabek, things have changed dramatically over the past 12 months. A year ago today, he was one of the favorites for the final two spots in the rotation behind Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Cecil. He only further cemented his roster spot during Spring Training, where he put together a 2.81 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and a 14:1 strikeout to walk ratio in his 16 innings (four starts). Preseason prognostication had him pegged as one of the three top choices for American League Rookie of the Year, alongside pitchers Jeremy Hellickson of the Rays and Michael Pineda of the Mariners. One of the three put together a 2.95 ERA on his way to winning the aforementioned award. Another made the All-Star team. The third didn’t share the same success and compiled a 6.74 ERA across 29 starts between the Majors and Triple-A. I’m sure Blue Jays fans are well aware which of the three Drabek was.
How exactly does a team’s best pitching prospect – and one of the best pitchers in the entire minor leagues – completely implode in only a matter of months? This wasn’t simply rookie struggles. As Blue Jays fans saw in the first half of the season, this was a complete physical and mental breakdown. Before we can figure out what Drabek needs to do to avoid a similar fate in the upcoming season, we must first determine what exactly went wrong last season.
35.5% four-seam fastballs, 93.4 mph
29.4% two-seam fastballs, 93.1 mph
16.1% cut fastball, 91.2 mph
7.6% “slider”, 82.3 mph
6.9% changeup, 86.5 mph
4.4% curveball, 83.0 mph
The information above is the percentage of total pitches and average velocity of each of Drabek’s “six” pitches from his time in the Majors in 2011, via FanGraphs. I put both the terms “slider” and “six” in quotations, because in actuality, Kyle Drabek does not throw a slider. He throws three different types of fastballs – the traditional four-seamer, a two-seamer, and a cut fastball – as well as a power curveball and straight changeup. The “slider” that appears in his PitchFX data is really a mislabeled curveball, though to be fair, outside of velocity, it’s really nothing like his true spike curveball.
As you can see in the data from his start against the Minnesota Twins on April 2 – arguably his best start of the season – the only offspeed pitch he threw was the aforementioned power curveball. The curve sat between 80 and 86 mph, and had movement that agrees with the 1-7 arc he puts on the pitch. His best curveball of the evening had an incredible 12 inches of vertical break. Additionally, curveballs accounted for 16 of his 101 total pitches thrown, good for 15.8%.
It was a far different story in his start against the Boston Red Sox on June 12, his final start with Toronto before his demotion to Triple-A. In this game, he threw zero pitches that were classified as curveballs, and seven pitches that were classified as “sliders”. The pitches clocked between 81 and 86 mph, but had far different movement than the breaking ball that we saw in his dominant April debut. The best of these “sliders” had six inches of vertical drop, merely half of the break his spike curveball typically shows. He threw 91 pitches in the game, and with only seven breaking balls (7.7%), he clearly became overly reliant on his three fastballs and his changeup. Comparing these two starts is like comparing apples and oranges, because outside of the name on the back of the jersey, Drabek was not the same pitcher in June as he was in April.
So how exactly does a curveball get misclassified as a slider? The PitchFX system relies upon velocity and movement for their classification scheme, and as the year wore on, the action on Drabek’s curveball left the range of parameters predetermined for the pitch. As the breaking ball exits said range, the system is forced to reclassify it to the pitch type with the most commonalities in velocity and movement – in this case, a slider. With that being said, Blue Jays fans are likely far more interested in knowing what happened to Drabek’s curveball, the plus-plus pitch that made him the top prospect that he was.
In reality, the grips between the two pitches aren’t drastically different; it’s the arm slot that has the biggest effect. Pitchers who rely upon curveballs will usually work from an overhead arm slot. Such an arm slot allows the pitcher to get a steep downward plane on the ball, creating beautiful 12-to-6 action. Former Cy Young Award winner Adam Wainwright is a perfect example of this. In contrast, pitchers who rely upon sliders will typically work from more of a three-quarter arm slot. It allows them to get two-plane movement and tilt on the pitch, as Blue Jays fans saw when Dave Stieb regularly took the mound in Toronto.
The arm slot is particularly important for Drabek, since at 6-foot-1, he needs to have as high of a release point as possible to create a downward plane. As the season wore on, however, something happened that caused his arm slot to drop. Whether it was fatigue, injury, or simply mechanical flaws we may never know, but the lowered arm slot killed the vertical movement on his breaking ball, transforming it from a power curveball into a slurve. With the breaking ball lacking its usual sharp movement, Drabek began to shy away from it, throwing more and more fastballs and cutters in its place. His fastball command is mediocre at best, so as hitters realized they didn’t have to worry about the curveball, they simply stood at the plate and let Drabek work himself into hitters counts. The problem only worsened from there, as Drabek becomes increasingly reliant upon fastballs in these situations.
1-0: 67% FB | 2-1: 74% FB | 2-0: 85% FB | 3-1: 95% FB | 3-0: 100% FB
When a pitcher becomes dependent upon fastballs and, thanks to his command, is always in fastball counts, you have a problem. Hitters know what’s coming, and as we saw, the results aren’t pretty.
Beyond just the mechanical issues that worsened as the year wore on, one has to wonder how much of an effect being the only pitching prospect in the Roy Halladay trade had on Kyle Drabek. His fiery personality is well documented, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that both expectations and his ineffectiveness took an emotional toll, particularly as the failure began to compound itself. Through my personal observations, and I’m confident most would agree, Drabek looked like a defeated man in late May and early June prior to his demotion. In a recent article written by Steve Kornacki of the Globe and Mail, Drabek was quoted as saying “I was frustrated every inning, every game. And it did not help me; it hurt me.” He stepped onto the mound with no confidence, expecting failure. When a player has that mindset, failure really becomes the only option, as it’s near impossible to succeed at anything in life – let alone the competitive environment of professional sports – if you don’t believe in yourself.
The great part about Spring Training is that it’s a fresh start for everyone. Fixing his mechanics and becoming more consistent with his release point appears to have been the focus of Drabek’s offseason, as he has entered the spring focused on drills that will clean up his delivery. With more consistent and sound mechanics, the sharp break on his curveball should return. Not only will the breaking ball itself be much improved, but by throwing it more – perhaps 15-20% – he’ll keep hitters off balance, and his other pitches will see improvement as well. Working backwards and throwing the curveball in fastball counts would also be of great benefit to him, because as I mentioned, he’s become far too predictable in that regard.
Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, Drabek is entering Spring Training 2012 under the radar. He’s more than two years removed from the Roy Halladay trade, and he’s no longer the top pitching prospect that is expected to immediately help lead the staff and contend for the American League Rookie of the Year award. He’s now just one of the guys, looking to perform well enough to contend for the fifth spot in the rotation. After such a disastrous 2011 season, expectations really couldn’t be lower, and that’s exactly what Drabek needs right now. Finding consistency with his mechanics and rebuilding his confidence aren’t going to happen overnight, and with the wealth of pitching talent Toronto now possesses, there’s no immediate pressure. Whether it’s as the fifth starter in Toronto or down in Double-A New Hampshire, Drabek will sort himself out, and when he does, he’ll be worth the wait.