Has Kyle Drabek arrived?

Kyle Drabek was acquired by the Blue Jays in December 2009. You may remember the trade as it involved two of the best pitchers in baseball. The Phillies traded Drabek to Toronto among a package of prospects for Roy Halladay. The Mariners and A’s were also in on the deal, with Cliff Lee heading (temporarily) to the Pacific Northwest.

Drabek is generally ranked as the top prospect in the Toronto organization. (THT agrees.) A high school All American, he was available to the Phillies as the 18th player taken in the 2006 draft. Drabek had some off-field issues along with a reputation for being temperamental and difficult. A blue chip on his shoulder.

Don’t take it for granted

It’s not clear what was holding Drabek back, but the start of his professional career was a departure from the tremendous success he had in high school. Walking nearly as many as he struck out, Kyle’s six-start debut in the Gulf Coast League was nothing to write home about. His 7.71 ERA already sticks out like a sore thumb on his career line.

By July of 2007, Drabek may have been getting on the right course—until he felt something strange in his right elbow. Rest didn’t do the trick. After having his elbow examined by as many as three doctors, he opted for Tommy John surgery. His ligament replacement surgery was done around July 25.

Drabek would come back quickly, notably making some personal changes along the way.

During that long, grueling road back, young Kyle Drabek had time to think. To reflect.

He realized that if he wanted to get back to those big league parks, he needed to grow up. Respect the game. Work at it. Appreciate it more than he ever had.

“I knew I was going to have to change things if I wanted to get there,” he said.

Everything, people around the Phillies now tell you, has changed with Drabek. His demeanor. His work ethic. His maturity level.

Harnessing his potential and rehabbing quickly, he was tossing from 90 feet in spring of 2008. His goal was to get back to full strength, where his fastball could get up to 97 mph.

Making his first four rehab starts later that summer, Drabek no longer had any problems with the Gulf Coast League. He shaved five-and-a-half runs off his ERA and moved on to New York-Penn League for another four games. Drabek wasn’t striking many batters out at this point, but his free passes started showing hints of scarcity.

In 2009—Drabek’s final year with the team that drafted him—the righthander burned through Advanced Single-A ball and finished the season in Double-A. He would return to the Eastern League in 2010 in a new uniform. In a total of 258.1 innings across the two seasons, Drabek posted a 22-11 record with a sparkling 3.21 ERA. While there was a small spike in his walk rate in 2010—from 2.8 per 9 IP to 3.9—his strikeout rate was steady, totaling 7.2 per 9 IP. Drabek also returned to an above-average groundball rate. His 2009 season was his only sub-par worm killing year to date.

It all came together on July 4, 2010 when Drabek threw a no-hitter. He issued two walks but thanks to a double play, Drabek faced just one over the minimum. Ten weeks later he was following in his father Doug’s footsteps by pitching in the major leagues.

Now Kyle can fulfill his destiny—help scientists study the heritability of Cy Young awards. He’s subject number two, but the first guy wasn’t really a pitcher.

Full season in the making?

Thanks to a job opening created when Shaun Marcum was traded to Milwaukee, Drabek is in competition for one of two spots along with Marc Rzepczynski, Jesse Litsch, Scott Richmond, and Jo-Jo Reyes, according to Jon Paul Morosi.

What should we expect out of the rotation Rookie of the Year candidate?

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

2011 projections

Starting with Hardball Times Forecasts:

Year Org Age IP ERA WHIP H K BB HR K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WAR
2011 TOR 23 138 3.93 1.34 127 102 58 13 6.7 3.8 0.8 2.3

Other 2011 projections from Fangraphs are in close agreement. The crowd-sourced projection appears to be the most pessimistic on performance but the most optimistic on innings pitched.

            ERA  FIP  IP
Bill James 3.71 3.96  34
Marcel     4.04 3.95  69
Fans       4.23 4.09 150 

150 innings could be on the low side for Drabek, assuming he makes the team, performs and remains healthy. Nothing is a lock with a 23-year-old pitcher.

According to Morosi, the lid is off on innings and Drabek could pull as many as 200 if the stars align. I’m pretty sure the Blue Jays would be more than pleased with 180 innings of 4.30 effort, which may not be out of his reach.

PITCHf/x scouting

Drabek has the stuff to be a big league starter. He throws five pitches, although he didn’t use his change-up against right-handed batters in his three September 2010 starts for the Blue Jays.

Average pitch speeds

Pitch MPH
Change 87.5
Fastball 94.5
Cutter 90.9
Sinker 94.8
Curveball 84.9

Drabek’s curveball group may include some sliders. The limited amount of data and calibration issues make it difficult to tease out the two types. As a matter of fact—as you’ll see in the charts below—I classified them as sliders initially.

He is throwing up above 97 at times, so he recovered all his velocity from the pre-surgery days.

Flight paths against left-handed hitters
click images to enlarge


Flight paths against right-handed hitters


The side, or first base, views are particularly useful in this case. You’ll notice the small “hump” but big drop on his curveball, which is marked “slider” and shown in black. The movement is apparent in video—it’s a hard, tight breaking pitch.

Catcher’s view of flight paths, left- and right-handed hitters


257 pitches doesn’t mean a lot, but Drabek showed three things in his three starts:

  1. Swing-and-miss stuff (.287 whiffs per swing)
  2. Trouble or reluctance to find the strike zone (.405 in wide zone)
  3. An ability to induce ground balls (59 percent of balls in play)

References & Resources
PITCHf/x data from Sportvision and MLBAM. Batted ball data from MLBAM. Pitch classifications by the author.

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Lucas Apostoleris
13 years ago

His curveball reminds me of A.J. Burnett’s.  One thing I noticed when I could watch him pitch on television was that he was very good at keeping the curve down (lots of pitches in the dirt).

Zach Sanders
13 years ago


I know Drabek missed the zone quite a bit last season, but was he primarily missing low in the zone or was he just wild?

Harry Pavlidis
13 years ago

Here are some location graphs (kinda ugly, not much data and haven’t updated my graph maker with Prince of Slides’ new code) … but it actually underscores what Lucas mentioned about keeping the pitch down.

All pitches: http://twitpic.com/3xpob5

Breaking pitches: http://twitpic.com/3xpp31

Jacob Rothberg
13 years ago

As a fan, there are probably few pitchers more enjoyable to watch than those with a hard fastball and a hammer curve. When those two pitches are working its a thing of beauty to watch.

Wayne Cowell
13 years ago

During his end of season call up, he demonstrated great composure on the mound.  He pitched better then his record indicated. 

I don’t think command will be an issue for Drabek this season based on what I had observed.

13 years ago

Not to make pitching seem easier than it is, but does anyone have an idea why Drabek isn’t a better strikeout pitcher?  As you note, he appears to have swing-and-miss stuff, but he’s never been a 9 k/9 pitcher.

Harry Pavlidis
13 years ago

There’s an awful lot of “pitch efficiently” type themes in his development, so he may be trying to get contact early, but manages a 7+ k per 9 by being able to put the hammer down when he’s ahead.