Kyle Drabek is the lone remaining piece of the Roy Halladay trade from 2009. The other prospect in that trade was dealt last off-season in the trade that shall not be named. Drabek was the first of many prospects with loads of potential in the AA-era, and at the time, he was seen as a player who had potential to become the next Halladay-like ace for Toronto.
He suffered his first major elbow injury (a UCL tear) back when he was still in the Phillies organization. He struggled with his emotions on the mound which seemed to affect his mechanics. He made some mechanical adjustments upon his return from Tommy John surgery but it became obvious to scouts that he was in his own head trying to focus on those changes—which made him much less effective on the mound.
With a TJ surgery behind him, and a year of new mechanics under his belt, it was expected that Drabek would take 2010 to develop a little further and be a mainstay in the Blue Jays rotation by 2011. Of course, this didn’t happen. He had trouble missing bats in the minor leagues and split his 2011 season between Las Vegas and Toronto.
Coming into spring training in 2012, there were once again high hopes that this would be the year Drabek would be the star the Jays thought they were getting when they made the trade. The coaching staff made more mechanical adjustments hoping to fix Drabek’s command issues. He had an impressive start to the season despite still struggling to maintain his command, pitching to a 2.40 ERA in five April starts. He was able to fight through large walk rates, but like most of the time, once the small sample got larger, the walks caught up to him. Overall, his 2012 season was a disappointment and it ended with a second UCL injury on June 13th that required another Tommy John surgery.
I had several requests via Twitter to review Drabek’s 2013 mechanics because I was told there were some changes. I was unable to see any of the two-and-one-third innings he pitched this past season at the time, so I went back and watched each appearance a few times. I immediately noticed significant differences in his delivery compared to the previous seasons with the Blue Jays. The injury red flags are very much still there, but at this point though, there is no way around them. I find it amazing that we are even discussing him as a starter after two TJ surgeries, but here we are. He’s always going to have to have the scap loading*(legend) and elbow drag*(legend) so there’s no point to dwell too much on the red flags.
What I will do is breakdown Drabek’s mechanics from the last three years to see how the Blue Jays have attempted to tinker with his delivery to solve the command issues that have dogged him since high school.
Below you can see an example of Drabek’s mechanics from 2011-13.
The first thing that always jumped out at me about the beginning of Drabek’s 2011/12 mechanics was the lack of eye contact with the target. The eyes are often overlooked when it comes to pitching mechanics but they are a vital part of balance as well as direction to the plate. In 2011/12, Drabek has to look straight down at the ground to make sure his footing is correct against the rubber.
Drabek makes a slight improvement in 2012 but still makes eye contact too late. This can lead to an issue he has with tailing balls off the edge of the plate.
In 2013 the eye contact was fixed. Drabek is glued to the target from the moment he receives his sign.
One of the issues the staff worked on with Drabek in 2012 was trying to stay in line with the plate more. Below you can see the balance and directional improvement.
The reason I obsess over him getting in a straight line is his front hip opening way up and the front foot strike causing a late trunk rotation. This isn’t always a terrible thing as a hip-driven torque can help kinetic bursts boosting velocity, however, biomechanical research has found a correlation with late trunk rotation and valgus torque at the elbow.
Having said that, my issue isn’t injury based here. Below you will see an example of Roger Clemens and his body working as a whole when coming forward. Drabek is what I like to call split in half at foot strike and his upper body has to catch up. This creates timing issues and can lead to poor command.
After Drabek underwent his second Tommy John surgery, I thought he was done as a starter. However, after studying his 2013 mechanics I’m slowly regaining faith in Drabek. I spoke with Chris King from Baseball Prospectus who saw Drabek pitch in the minors this past season and he said that “command and velocity were both a pleasant surprise.”
Drabek’s 2013 season in the majors was incredibly short. He made only three relief appearances. Something I noticed in that painfully small sample size was his approach; he nibbled like crazy and wasn’t getting calls from the umpire. If you look solely at the box score of the Minnesota game, he looked terrible. However, his command was actually good but he wasn’t getting the calls and the Twins hit some great pitches.
What I liked about his 2013 mechanics
The most obvious mechanical change to me is how simple the whole delivery is. Drabek stays much more compact and avoids a drastic leg lift. I’m not against high leg lifts per se, but for someone like Drabek who has struggled with command his whole career, a more compact delivery is more suitable.
One of Drabek’s problems in the past was his propensity to get in his own head and get angry on the mound. As a result, repeating his delivery was incredibly difficult. Simplifying everything helps him get over tricky areas and avoid thinking too much about specific spots of the delivery and just focus on hitting his target.
In that same picture you can see his hands are very high and away from his body in 2011/12. This was corrected in 2013 and when he releases his arm from the glove he can create a much more repeatable arm path.
An issue Drabek has always had is falling way off balance after foot strike. Not to pick on his early hips again, but by opening his front hip early he is landing in an off balanced position causing his body to drift as he’s coming towards the plate. Below you will see that by simplifying his overall delivery, the balance has improved some.
The slight fall off or drifting to first base isn’t a destroyer of all mechanics like you’ve probably read time and time again, it just creates more timing issues and is difficult to repeat. Justin Verlander has a very similar strike and drift balance issue but he maintains some of the best mechanics in the game. Below you can see the similarities as well as how Verlander is able to control and repeat his balance issue better than Drabek.
A lot of people don’t like the stiff planting leg from Verlander but his ability to control falling off to the side is incredible. Drabek doesn’t have the same type of control as he’s falling off. It’s much more spiratic.
Overall, I love how the Jays have simplified his delivery. It’s up to Drabek now to work at repeating them and temper his emotions. In the pic below you can see him “reaching back” for a little more and as a result his timing is off. The result is a fastball that misses well above the strike zone.
You can see the throwing arm reaching further back on the right. He also rushes moving his arm into external rotation causing a timing issue at release point.
So there are still repeatability issues there, but the best foundation has been laid to this point. As Jays’ fans we can only hope he can reach that ceiling we were so excited about when Roy left town.
Elbow drag – A poor elbow position at maximum external rotation. The elbow will “drag” behind the shoulder line.