Changing Gears in Buffalo, A Talk with Kyle Drabek

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It’s a story that is told far too often in Major League Baseball; that of the top prospect who struggles to reach success at the highest level of the game. Instead he spends years labouring in the minors, hoping for success and another chance at the big league level.

For Kyle Drabek, this has been his story, but with an added twist. He had the added bonus of front lining a trade package for one of the best starting pitchers in the game, Roy Halladay. Often resulting from this were increased expectations and pressure; people looked to Kyle Drabek to be the next Roy Halladay in Toronto. Now, a little over four years after he was acquired from Philadelphia, he has been ousted from his spot in the AAA rotation, and jettisoned to the bullpen, a place that he has not been familiar with in his professional career.

Yet still, Drabek reiterated to me, before the Buffalo Bisons game this past Sunday, that he will do “whatever the Jays want. If they would like [him] to start, or would like him out of the bullpen, [he’ll] just work towards doing whatever [he] can to get the job done.” However, like Brett Lawrie, who said he’ll play at second or third because he wants the best for the team, that isn’t exactly true. As he has stated, Lawrie prefers to be at third base, Colby Rasmus prefers to be in centre field, and Drabek prefers to be in a comfort zone of his own; he “prefers to start”.

After undergoing the second Tommy John surgery of his career in 2012, Drabek rehabbed for a year and was back in the minors last summer. To say he achieved success in his 43 minor league innings would be an understatement. He saw his BB/9 drop to a minuscule 1.3 across three levels (A+, AA, AAA), by far the best mark of his career, while also achieving a much improved 3.13 ERA. Although those numbers were surely affected by the small sample size they came in, scouts and evaluators were impressed. Kyle was called up to Toronto in September and was able to get into some game action. While probably not as much action as he would have liked, he pitched 2.1 innings, and although the results weren’t good, his stuff looked great.

The improvements in his 2013 stats could be from changes Drabek and the coaching staff made to his mechanics. Chris Sherwin, in his Under The Hood article focused on Drabek noticed the following positive changes:

  1. Significantly better eye contact with the plate.
  2. Avoiding drastic leg kick.
  3. Keeping arm tucked closer to body for longer.

Given the success he experienced with these changes, one would think he would keep them for the 2014 season. But, on the topic of his 2013 mechanics,  Drabek told me that they, “actually got rid of [those] around spring training“. 

Looking at the following GIF from his appearance on Monday night, you can see that his newest set of mechanics are trying to take the best from all the previous types he has had.

The eye contact issue has not been touched, and it is still greatly improved like it was in 2013. However, the leg kick is eerily similar to the one he featured in 2012.

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 7.57.21 AM

Next, we go to the hands, where Drabek says they made changes for a specific reason.

“After I changed it where my hands were low, they pretty much found out that caused me to over rotate more when releasing the ball, and just caused me to fall off the mound faster. So, we kind of went back to my 2011 mechanics, but just trying to clean them up.”

They did in fact go back to the 2011 style of mechanics for the arms, with some minor tweaks to “clean them up”. But, the downside of fixing the arm tuck so he stays in a more controlled position is that his arm is now in more risk health wise with this new style. There will be less stress on him now that he is going to be pitching out of the bullpen though, so if anything, his arm is definitely in a better position in terms of health risk now than it was last season.

He has stuck with the 2014 mechanics throughout the season, and now Kyle and Buffalo pitching coach Randy St. Claire are working on just, “being able to repeat [his] delivery,  especially out of the windup.”

Now that Drabek has been moved to the bullpen, don’t expect him to focus on certain pitches, he made sure to note that he has and will be utilizing his full arsenal of pitches both out of the stretch and the windup.

Nonetheless, the vulnerability of young starting pitchers, like Kyle Drabek, should be a cautionary tale for prospect hounds who would prefer the Jays hold on to pitchers like Aaron Sanchez instead of including him in a package for a pitcher this summer.  With Sanchez and Drabek both in AAA, I asked Kyle if he had spoken to Aaron about how to handle the expectations that come with being the ‘No. 1 Prospect’, and how to deal with the pressure. His answer:

Not really. He doesn’t need to be talked to about it. If [Aaron] can go out there and do what [he] is supposed to do, [he’;l] be able to show it*.

When asked if his goals with the organization have changed with the role change, he echoed his statement from earlier, saying that “[Whether in the] bullpen or starting, whatever gets me up there and works for me, I’ll do it”.

With the way that the Blue Jays’ bullpen has performed thus far this season, it’s probably not inconceivable that Kyle Drabek might find himself in the majors sooner rather than later, though likely not in the starting role that he prefers. Perhaps, somewhere, beneath the repercussions of multiple Tommy John surgeries, he will be able to find success with a familiar arsenal in an unfamiliar role.

Thanks to Chris Sherwin for help with the mechanical stuff.

Picture via James_in_to courtesy of Flickr.