Kyle Drabek: an analysis of the rookie's stuff

Do you remember April the 2nd, this year? Kyle Drabek had a no-hitter going until Denard Span hit a cutter for a line drive single after 5.1 innings of dominance by Drabek. Drabek struck out seven Twins and walked three that day, and the Jays won resoundingly after crushing Francisco Liriano. Optimism was at a maximum: the Jays had won their first two games in convincing fashion against the Twins, projected AL Central winners, who sent well-regarded pitchers like Liriano and Carl Pavano to the mound. Kyle Drabek was looking like an ace, he now had 4 career starts, and he had limited the walks, got a decent number of strikeouts, but most of all he had an impressive groundball ratio. Kyle Drabek, I think we all thought, was going to be an ace pitcher immediately.

It didn't turn out like that. First of all, the Twins turned out to be Oriolifically crappy this year, to the point where even the masters of such crappiness, the Orioles themselves, beat up on them. Pavano and Liriano have been crushed by almost every other team (the White Sox don't count as a team) as well. But apart from that it makes our Jays look less awesome, it doesn't concern us. What does concern us, is the performance of young Kyle Drabek, our future ace. Well, one of three aces anyway, as Brandon Morrow v 2.0 and Ricky Romero seem like legitimate aces as well. Drabek started walking a lot of batters in his next two starts, but was limiting the damage somehow. However, when he then faced the Yankees his peripherals turned ugly (4 BB, 2 K) and he allowed 4 runs in 5.1 innings pitched. He had a good game against the Rangers, he got a lot of groundballs, before getting crushed by the Yankees again with 5 runs allowed in 2.1 innings. Since then, he had an average outing against the Rays, and a positive one against the Red Sox this Tuesday. Although he allowed two home runs, one to Ortiz and one to Adrian Gonzalez, he had more Ks than BB for the first time since facing the Mariners, which was almost a full month earlier.

If you look at Drabek's opponents since that awesome Twins game, you'll find he has faced a tough bunch of teams, to put it mildly. The Yankees (twice) and the Rangers are the top 2 in wOBA of the (American) league, and the Red Sox, Angels and Rays are also pretty good. The Rays probably look worse than they are, because they missed Evan Longoria, who came back right before Drabek faced the Rays. The Mariners aren't any good, but Drabek might not have been at his best that day, as his fastball velocity was down a bit. Looking at Drabek's splits, he has a 4.54 xFIP against lefties, and a 4.45 against righties. He walks and Ks more lefties, but gets more groundballs against righties. He has faced almost twice as many lefties as he has righties.

(more after the jump)

Because the Pitch F/X data from TexasLeaguers for Kyle Drabek wasn't accurate (classifying his changeups as curves for most of the season) so I gather the data myself. You can see the results here: link.

First of, what does Drabek throw? He throws a fastball (2-seam and 4-seam, they are hard to distinguish so I lumped them together) 59.5% of the time, mostly away from lefties, and in to righties. It sits around 94 mph, will touch 96 mph on occasion and can be down to 90-91 mph later in games. He throws a cutter at around 89-92 mph, mostly inside to lefties and outside to righties, and he uses it 21.8% of the time. Then there's a 84-87 mph changeup which he will throw mostly to lefties, and he throws it 9.5% of the time. Last but not least there's his curveball which he throws 9.2% of the time to both lefties and righties, but more to righties. I will compare his pitch type stats with those of Romero, Litsch and Morrow (data from TexasLeaguers). First the fastballs and cut fastballs:

Pitch Usage% Strike% Swing% SwStr% InPlay%
Drabek Fastball 59.5% 59.9% 40.7% 7.8% 17.2%
Drabek Cutter 21.8% 48.2% 35.3% 6.5% 16.5%
Litsch Fastball 39.0% 52.0% 34.9% 3.3% 20.1%
Litsch Cutter 15.7% 60.2% 30.0% 6.5% 12.0%
Romero Fastball 64.2% 59.8% 41.9% 6.0% 18.8%
Morrow Fastball 63.5% 61.7% 46.3% 11.7% 12.5%


Drabek's fastball seems to get strikes at a normal rate, and whiffs at an above average rate. It isn't at Morrow's level, but it seems to be good enough. The cutter, which he throws a lot of, has not been a good pitch. It started off well against Minnesota and LA, but since then Drabek's command over it seems to have completely disappeared. Pitchers who throw cutters a lot tend to get more than 60% strikes with it, but Drabek has been getting himself into a lot of hitters counts by throwing this pitch wide of the strikezone. Drabek did throw it for 63.6% strikes in his first two outings, so you can imagine how low his strike% since then is. The amount of times he's thrown the pitch has also decreased.

Well, on to the changeups:

Litsch 12.2%
Cecil 2010

*Morrow uses a splitter as a sort of changeup

It should be noted here that Romero and Marcum are masters of the change. And still, Drabek does not compare all that unfavourably to those guys. He gets a lot of whiffs but a below average number of strikes, and if he threw it more batters would probably get better at recognizing the pitch. That said, over his last four outings Drabek has thrown the pitch for a strike 61.9% of the time, with a 32.6% swinging strike rate. Drabek seems to trust the pitch a bit more as he threw more changeups against the Red Sox than cutters. And to great effect, as the Sox hitters whiffed at 7 of his 18 changeups (38.9%). Drabek's changeup seems to be getting better all the time and has lately been producing at a phenomenal level for him. On to the breaking balls:

Drabek CU
Litsch SL
Litsch CU
Morrow SL
Romero CU
Cecil SL*

Cecil's data used here is from 2010

Drabek gets a good number of strikes with his curveball, a lot of them looking. When batters do swing, they will not make contact very often. However, like his cutter, Drabek's curve has also gotten worse results after having a phenomenal first two games. Over his last four games, Drabek has thrown it for a strike 52.8% and gotten just 11.1% swinging strikes.

To summarize, Drabek has the stuff you want from an ace pitcher. His fastball, changeup and curveball all rate as above average over the course of the season. It has really been mostly the command of his cutter over the last six games that has made him a much less effective pitcher than he could have been. Perhaps Drabek could drop it for a few games, increase the use of his promising offspeed stuff, and see how that goes. Drabek has the stuff to be an ace, I'm certain of it. But then, you all knew he does because you've watched him. What perhaps you didn't know was how good his changeup has been, most notably in his last few starts. I can't wait to see him become what we all know he can become. The third ace of this young staff.

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