May 07, 2012

Drabek Still a Work in Progress

Kyle Drabek may be pitching better than ever, but his development will not be as easy as flipping a switch.

The 24-year-old righty is looking poised for a breakout 2012 season, throwing a 3.34 ERA through his first six starts with the Toronto Blue Jays. The media has been gushing about the progress made with his remedied stride toward the plate, even suggesting that the centrepiece of the Roy Halladay trade may still live up to his hype. While it would be fantastic if he were to fill his ace-potential shoes, there are signs in his first month of the year that he may still have some work to do.

Walking batters has been an issue for Drabek since he showed up in the Major Leagues, and he has done fairly well to control his pitches better this year. However, he has still issued 20 walks, the third most in baseball. There are stretches during his starts where he pounds the strike zone, and he is stellar when he does.

At times, though, especially as of late, he has slipped back into his old habits and allowed plenty of baserunners, as shown by his ugly 1.46 WHIP. He then has to face more batters, bloating his pitch count, shortening his outings. Because of this he has averaged less than six innings per start, while Romero, Morrow, and Alvarez all at or close to seven innings.

Still, he has managed to keep runs off the board. Drabek has been superb getting out of jams, holding opposing teams to a .133 batting average with runners in scoring position. His performance Saturday night against the Angels was a prime example: he got a couple clutch double play balls that kept Toronto in the game.

He has been a completely different pitcher with runners on. Contrast his .133 opponent average with runners in scoring position with a .284 average with nobody on. Even more telling are his home run numbers. He has conceded six long balls, tying him for eighth in the American League among starters. The thing is, all six were solo shots; not a single homer with a man on base.

These are very interesting numbers considering where he was last year. His tendancy was to lose his cool after making a couple bad pitches, and he would often get torched because of that. The lack of composure was the number one reason he did not last the year with the Blue Jays.

Fortunately, Drabek seems to have learned from that ordeal. His body language suggests that he is not letting his mistakes get to him the way they did in 2011. Watching him after four-pitch walks, you can tell he isn't happy, but instead of frustration, he shows determination to get out of the inning.

This is a huge step in the right direction; it is impossible to overstate how important it is for a young pitcher to control his emotions. That said, controlling his pitches remains a problem for Drabek, and it is now the biggest aspect of his game that is holding him back.

Although he has avoided the crooked numbers so far, it will be impossible to maintain a low ERA with a 1.46 WHIP. If he would pitch with the bases empty anywhere near as well as he has with the bases juiced, he would win a ton of games.

Of course, it never is as simple as it sounds. Unless he is the rare exception, he will be struggling all year to keep the ball in the strike zone, and in the ballpark. The good news is, if he can manage to figure it out in the end, 2012 could be the year Kyle Drabek becomes a real big league pitcher.

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