Kyle Drabek's Big League Debut

September 18, 2010

Adding to a stable of talented, young MLB hurlers few teams can match, Kyle Drabek made his Major League debut for the Toronto Blue Jays on the 15th. Drabek showed why some scouts love the potential and why you, the astute reader, should still be cautious.


After a stellar high school career in Texas, Drabek was selected 18th overall by the Phillies in 2006. In 2007 Drabek suffered a serious elbow injury and missed most of 2007 and 2008 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Drabek had a very nice 2009 season, which lead to him being a key part of the package for Blue Jays' ace Roy Halladay. In 162 Double-A innings this year, Drabek posted a strikeout rate of 19.9% and walked 10.3% of the batters he faced, despite big-time stuff.


Drabek toed the mound against the Baltimore Orioles and ended up with a very solid six innings of work, allowing three runs on nine hits, while striking out five and walking three. Of course, you didn't come here just for a box score.

One of the frustrating things about prospect evaluation, especially for pitchers, is that so much of the information is second-hand and vague. One persons "plus" breaking ball could be "average". Velocities get exaggerated and erroneously reported. That's why I love when a guy finally makes the show. We can get a much better handle on what he's throwing.

Type Count Selection Velocity (MPH) Vertical (in) Horizontal (in) Spin Angle (deg) Spin Rate (rpm)
FF 47 53.40% 93.2 5.64 -3.74 213 1,498
FC 13 14.80% 91.4 4.72 0.43 167 1,042
CU 13 14.80% 83.0 -5.78 5.55 43 1,469
SL 11 12.50% 86.9 0.33 2.32 124 732
CH 4 4.50% 85.7 0.28 -7.59 268 1,424

The above table is from the greatness of TexasLeaguers. FF is four-seam fastball, FC cutter, CU curveball, SL slider and CH stands for change up.

Introducing his cutter 

Several things stand out from the pitchf/x data for Drabek. First, the 13 cutters Drabek threw were about 13 more than he'd thrown prior to this year. The cutter is a new pitch for Drabek, and his willingness to use if often is a good sign going forward. Drabek threw 10 of the 13 cutters for strikes. While the pitch lacks average movement (MLB average vertical movement for a cutter is 7.18 inches compared to Drabek's 4.72) it does have above-average velocity (91.4 MPH compared the MLB average of 89.1 MPH). Drabek's use of a cutter seems to be a result of his lack of faith in his change up, given the 4.5% usage. An average cutter could be a weapon versus left-handed hitters, especially, since right-handed pitchers tend to avoid throwing sliders to left-handed hitters.

Four-seam fastball 

Drabek worked primarily off his four-seam fastball. Long lauded for his arm strength, He showcased above-average velocity, averaging 93.2 MPH (MLB average 92.08). Similar to his cutter, Drabek showcased a four-seamer with above-average velocity with below-average movement. His four-seamer was nearly a full standard deviation below average in both vertical and horizontal movement. 

One of the perplexing things about Drabek's prospect status has been how a pitcher with such good stuff hasn't gotten more strikeouts in the minor leagues. On this one start, and a pretty small sample of 47 fastballs, Drabek only induced a 2.1% whiff rate (MLB average 6.03%). Also a concern was the fact that only 55.3% of Drabek's four-seam fastballs were strikes at all, well-below the MLB average of 64.4%. Arm strength and velocity are great, and they generate headlines, but a pitch's worth is just as much tied to movement and command. On this day, at least, Drabek was below-average with both his fastball movement and control.


One thing the above table doesn't really capture is how effective Drabek's curveball can be. Coming in exceptionally hard (average MLB velocity for a curve is 77.3 MPH) Drabek's 83 MPH is ridiculous. The Orioles' hitters seemed flummoxed by the pitch, as they swung and missed at 30.8% of the uncle charlie's Drabek offered up. I also think that some of the pitches classified as sliders by pitchf/x were curves. But it's really just a semantic argument about where to place pitches on the continuum of breaking balls. Whatever you call it, how ever you measure it, Kyle Drabek has really good one, or two -- Drabek's slider produced a mind-boggling whiff rate of 54.5%. The best think about Drabek's curveball is not that it has so much break -- it's just about average according to the pitchf/x numbers -- it's that the break is so sharp and late in the ball's flight path. The pitch doesn't really start diving until it's 15 feet from home plate. By that time it's way too late for the hitter so make any adjustments.



Overall, for a 22-year-old making his big league debut, without so much as a pit stop in Triple-A, Drabek's promise is impressive. He showed what has made some scouts see future all-star: excellent arm strength and an exceptional breaking ball. However, the below-average control Drabek exhibited should be cause for concern. As Denny Foster wrote of Drabek after a spring training outing

"To compensate for the amount of effort he employs to get his arm up and maintain velocity, Drabek naturally leans to the first base side of the mound. This helps to force his arm to a fully cocked position, and thus ready it to deliver the pitch. By leaning drastically to compensate for his late arm action, his balance is compromised.

Looking at his mechanics as a whole, Drabek's arm enters the driveline drastically late, enough so to effect his balance and ability to locate his pitches."  

I may give a full write-up on Drabek's mechanics but I agree with Denny's assessment. Drabek's lack of ideal balance is the likely reason behind his below-average control. Some young hurlers struggle with control when learning a new pitch, just getting used to consistently finding their release point. But Drabek's struggles appear to go deeper and, as such, could be harder to remedy. As devastating as Drabek's curve was, many of his breakers were in the dirt. While hitters seeing Drabek for the first time still swung at several, good hitters make adjustments. Drabek needs to show he can throw all his pitches for strikes.

Kyle Drabek is sure to have flashes of brilliance, as his stuff is good enough right now for him to be able to hold his own in the major leagues. Yet, if true stardom is in his future, he'll need to show at least average control. Mechanical changes could lead to better control, not to mention improved odds of long-term health. Drabek is sure to be one of the highest rated pitching prospects in baseball going into next season, but don't expect him to immediately be a top-of-the-rotation star.


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