Kyle Drabek, Hero or Zero?

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This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a little while now, and since I’m home for the holiday today, now seemed like a good time. When the Phillies selected Drabek 18th overall in the June draft, nearly everyone had an opinion right away. As many people know, Drabek had very detailed, and what some might say “extensive” off the field issues leading up to him being drafted. Having never seen any police reports, I have no real way to know what exactly happened or how. It’s easy to write something off as a kid “just being stupid”, but in many cases (the Cole Hamels bar fight comes to mind), there are always two sides, and sometimes many more. What we can determine, though, is pretty simple: Kyle Drabek is not your typical teenager.

As has been well publicized, Drabek is the son of former Cy Young award winner Doug Drabek. Kyle certainly isn’t the first son of a big leaguer to get drafted, but few have had the media attention surrounding them like Kyle has gone through. You normally always hear the stories about the kids who grew up in poor families, who could barely afford a glove, and who just got to where they were because someone took a chance on them…..that’s not Kyle. Having grown up the son of a Major League pitcher (and a decent one at that), he was given more opportunities, and even more importantly, had his own personal pitching coach from a young age. What sometimes gets lost, however, is that people like Kyle experience things somewhat differently than your common teenager. While I was playing with my Tonka toys out in the sand box, Kyle got to go into Major League clubhouses. When I played catch with my dad, we were just playing catch. When Kyle played catch with his dad, he was learning how to throw a spike curve and develop arm side run on his fastball. While I was really happy to be able to get a car as nice as my old Subaru when I turned 16, Kyle probably expected nothing less than the Escalade he ended up damaging in a 1 car accident.

I think what I’m trying to say there is, it’s not Kyle’s fault that he was born into the lifestyle he was. It’s not like he had control over the fact that his father was a successful major league pitcher and he could grow up in a privileged household and enjoy the benefits of a privileged lifestyle. I’ve seen people comment that this is somehow a reflection of him, and this is a flaw in his character. I tend to think the opposite, that it’s just something he’s been dealt, and at some point, he’s either going to learn from his mistakes, or he’s going to end up a zero in life all together, not just baseball-wise. The temper, the throwing bats, the punching walls, we’ve all heard those stories, but let’s be honest, he’s a teenager. This writer is only 25, and not too long ago, I can remember slamming my driver into the ground when I’d hook a drive off the 4th tee in an important high school golf match (cue chuckling), or cursing myself out during practice. Hell, I may have even kicked my golf bag a time or two. In my mind, I was just really competitive. When it came time to put the chips on the table, I was always able to get the better of my emotions. When you look at Kyle’s track record, he seems to have done the same.

In fact, before we dig into Kyle’s numbers and figure out where he’s headed, I think it’s important to take note of one thing. Some of the greatest players in recent baseball memory are noted for their fiery, sometimes over the top behavior. Remember when Roger Clemens fired the broken bat piece at Mike Piazza? Clemens wasn’t vilified, we had to hear how “he’s just such a fiery competitor”…..ok. Randy Johnson? He never met a guy (teammate or not) he didn’t like to yell at. There is the other side. There are guys like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine who show little emotion. But the point is, it works on both sides. As a fan, I don’t really like guys who accept losing, or who don’t seem phased by losing. Now, there is a limit to what you can do, and I’m not advocating that Drabek berate every umpire he sees from now till 2015, or that he kick a water cooler once a week, but he is 18, he is still a kid, and he is a “fiery competitor”, so hey, let’s give him some time.

Now that I’ve waxed poetic, let’s get to the issue at hand. Most draft experts prior to the draft felt Drabek was a top 5 talent, but that he could slip, maybe even to the bottom of the first round, because of his off the field issues. A few days prior to the draft we learned that the Phillies had scouted him (many teams did), but unlike many, they had been doing extensive research on Drabek’s off the field issues. On draft day, it was still unsure just where he could go. He was being mentioned anywhere from the Dodgers at #7, to the Rangers at #12, to the Phillies at #18, all the way down to the Dodgers again at #26. LA took Clayton Kershaw, the best high school LHP in the draft, at #7, and the Rangers took Kasey Kiker, another high school LHP, at #12. That cleared the way for the Phillies, who went ahead and took the gamble. The reason this is called “Hero or Zero”, is because most feel Drabek will either become a star, or he’ll be out of baseball in 3 years, and most don’t see a lot of middle ground.

Based on stuff alone, his fastball/curveball combination was one of the best in the draft. He possesses a real quick arm and his mechanics are smooth. During his high school season, he regularly threw in the 93-95 range, dialing it up to 97 with some frequency. His curve is a true 12-6 spike curveball, normally in the 75-79 range. He also threw a slider, which sat more in the mid 80’s, and a rarely thrown (not needed) changeup. Here is the scouting video of Drabek, courtesy of mlb.com

Now, I’m not a pitching coach, or Sean Salisbury, but I’m going to attempt to break down the video here. If anyone else wants to add anything to my analysis of the video, please leave it in the comments. I’ll use the time on the video to make my comments

[0:00-0:17] Warm up tosses, nothing exciting
[0:18-0:22] This would be his curve ball. 76 mph, with tight downward motion.
[0:23-0:27] Four seam fastball, 94 mph, nice downward plane on the pitch.
[0:28-0:31] This looks to be his slider, 85 mph. Great late movement and tilt.
[0:32-0:35] Four seam fastball, 94 mph. Lots of movement, especially in the final 3rd of the way to the plate.
[0:36-0:39] Four seamer, this one not as much movement, but good late life.
[0:40-0:44] This looks like a 2 seam fastball, 90 mph, where he just takes a little off and gets more movement.

Rest of the video shows him from the side, not much to add there, except that he looks in control of all of his movements and doesn’t seem to waste any effort or have any extraneous movements/hitches that could cause mechanical problems.

Now that you know his story, now that you’ve seen him throw a few pitches and have a general idea of what he brings, it’s time to figure out what he’s going to become. That’s a trick statement, really, because it’s nearly impossible to figure out what ANY prospect will become, because they are just that, prospects, and we know that “prospect” basically means “could be in the future”. Drabek, based on his talent, COULD be a #1 pitcher some day, or, based on his previous off the field issues and temper, could be the next Chris Enochs. Who? Exactly. His arm is strong enough to carry him, but it’s going to come down to what’s in between the ears. I’m a believer, some aren’t, but time will tell. What I want to do is quickly look at some of the best pitching prospects/young pitchers in the game who were drafted out of high school and see how they progressed in their first full season. That will give us a benchmark and show us what Kyle needs to shoot for if he wants to put himself into the upper echelon of pitching prospects. Here is a short list I’ve compiled, along with their first season after being drafted

Chad Billingsley, 2004 (19, A+/AA): 133.1 IP, 2.57 ERA, 6.76 H/9, 4.80 BB/9, 10.68 K/9, 0.47 HR/9
Matt Cain, 2003 (18, A-): 74 IP, 2.55 ERA, 6.93 H/9, 2.92 BB/9, 10.95 K/9, 0.61 HR/9
Jon Lester, 2003 (19, A-): 106 IP, 3.65 ERA, 8.66 H/9, 3.74 BB/9, 6.03 K/9, 0.59 HR/9
Scott Olsen, 2003 (19, A-): 128.1 IP, 2.81 ERA, 7.08 H/9, 4.14 BB/9, 9.05 K/9, 0.28 HR/9
Joel Zumaya, 2003 (18, A-): 90.1 IP, 2.79 ERA, 6.87 H/9, 3.79 BB/9, 12.55K/9, 0.30 HR/9
Homer Bailey, 2005 (19, A-): 103.2 IP, 4.43 ERA, 7.73 H/9, 5.38 BB/9, 10.85K/9, 0.43 HR/9
Philip Hughes, 2005 (19, A-/A+): 86.1 IP, 2.20 ERA, 5.64 H/9, 2.09 BB/9, 9.72 K/9, 0.10 HR/9
Scott Elbert, 2005 (20, A-): 115 IP, 2.66 ERA, 6.50 H/9, 4.46 BB/9, 10.02 K/9, 0.63 HR/9

All of these pitchers above were ranked in the Top 80 overall prospects in baseball by Baseball America before the 2006 season started. All are still considered elite talent now, though in different respects. Billingsley, Olsen, Zumaya, Cain, and Lester all made it to the majors in 2006 and all of them will be in the majors in 2007. Bailey and Hughes are considered the two best RHP prospects in the minors, and Elbert is considered by many to be the best LHP prospect in the minors. So, I’d say we have a pretty good idea what it takes to be considered an elite prospect, and at this point, that’s what we’re hoping Drabek turns into over the next season, right? By all accounts, if Drabek has a good spring, and “good” basically means he doesn’t get into any trouble off the field, he doesn’t beat up a coach, and he doesn’t injure himself, he’ll be assigned to full season Lakewood. That seems to be the trend for those on the list above, as they were all assigned to low A in their first season after being drafted, with the exception of Billingsley, who was sent to high A to start his first full year.

Lakewood is a moderate pitcher’s park, based on the 3 year weighted park factors list compiled at Baseball Think Factory, suppressing runs (0.86, with 1.00 being “average”), and especially home runs, at only 0.51. When you look at the numbers for the elite high school pitchers above, you’ll notice that in almost every case (except Lester) strikeouts are prevalent, and home run suppression is at a premium. This tells you that these pitchers are generating swings and misses, and when batters do make contact, they aren’t hitting the ball very hard. The one area that you will see a great fluctuation is walks per 9. Control (not to be confused with command) can give you an idea how quickly a guy will move through the minors, but it’s not absolute. Homer Bailey really struggled with his control in 2005, but greatly improved in 2006 at High A, cutting his walk rate in half. Sometimes it’s a small adjustment here or there. However, a pitcher with superb control at a young age, like Philip Hughes, lends to much better projections and predictions down the road.

So what should we expect from Drabek? Well, I don’t really know. You can take his GCL numbers from the summer and basically toss them out the window. He threw a lot of innings in high school and signed a little later (July), so he probably wasn’t quite sharp when he reported, and he was probably dealing with a tired arm. His starts were either good or awful, and he wasn’t consistent. He reportedly was taking well to instruction during the Florida Instructional League, which is a good sign, and he should report to spring training with a fresh arm, ready to go. The Phillies would like to be aggressive in starting him in full season ball, but he will probably stay in Lakewood all season, unless he either flat out dominates or he completely bombs out….kind of back to this hero or zero theme again. If he puts up a 1.95 ERA in his first three months, he might see a promotion to Clearwater for July and August, and similarly, if he puts up a 9.65 ERA in his first three months, he might head to Williamsport for the final two months, but in all likelihood, he’ll be a fixture at Lakewood for the duration of 2007. The Phillies will more than likely be cautious with his pitch counts, and because of that, he might only pitch 120-135 innings this year. You can’t really fault them for it, it’s just the way the game has progressed (or regressed, depending how you feel), and because he’s only 19, it won’t hurt his development if he doesn’t log 160 innings this year.

The SAL league generally favors pitching slightly, so Drabek should have a chance to shine. Everyone will be watching, and he knows it. One bad season won’t break him, and it won’t make him a non-prospect, but it will increase the vitriol already being thrown in his direction. If his head is in the game, if he wants to be the best and wants to work for it, you might just see a special season from him. The last time the Phillies took a gamble on a pitcher who slid in the draft, they found themselves with Cole Hamels at #17 in 2002…..let’s hope in 5 years we say “the last time we gambled on a pitcher, we stole Kyle Drabek at #18 in 2006.” Good luck this year Kyle.

11 thoughts on “Kyle Drabek, Hero or Zero?

  1. I suspect that in the end his ‘temperament’ issue will be much ado about close to nothing. For off the field issues, he ranks behind Hamels. About the same as Myers, wife beating aside, who was viewed as approaching pitching with a boxer’s mentality. He should mature. He likely wants to prove the skeptics wrong.

    He has a few weeks of rookie ball under his belt. He is just a prospect, but the odds are much, much better for a prospect with this talent. In the end, his reaching the majors and success in the majors will be determined #1 by his ability to stay healthy. That is the determinant for most HS pitching prospects with first or second round talent. The second most important determinant will be development of his changeup. Temperament is third.

  2. If he can learn a straight changeup or splitter, he’s going to have a deadly arsenal. I’m sure he can get through Low A and High A with just his fastball/curve/slider.

  3. You put a lot of time into this, James. Nice. I hope you’re
    right about his future. As for the Phillies giving him more
    attention than the other clubs (“..but unlike many, they had been doing extensive research on Drabek’s off the field issues”)
    what’s your evidence for that?

  4. I remember reading an article, I think it was from Baseball America, where a lot of teams just decided he wasn’t worth the time, and they wouldn’t pick him, even if it was in the 50th round. The Phillies, and I believe the article said three or four other teams, did repeated interviews with him and really tried to investigate his off the field stuff and find out if it was being overblown or if it was a legitimate scare. Most teams, from what I gathered, just assumed he was too much of a risk and didn’t investigate as deeply as a few teams (the Phillies included) did.

  5. Outstanding work. Glad you evidently decided that you like this blogging thing after all 😉

    You’re absolutely right that the guys who consistently put up big numbers are hailed as “fiery competitors” rather than slammed as headcases with “maturity issues.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting to excel. But the same behaviors can look a lot different depending on the backstory–a guy who acts like a jerk in the clubhouse, flips off his coach, and dogs it in the weight room will get less slack for acting out than someone else who’s a great teammate, a workaholic, and otherwise acts like a professional with total commitment to getting better.

    It seems that Drabek could go either way, though I think another crucial point you make–that he simply grew up in a milieu even most 18 year-old baseball hotshots couldn’t imagine–probably colors how he’s perceived. I have no particular insight into how he’ll do going forward, but I think the Phillies were justified in taking the chance.

  6. it’s interesting to see that the phils did actually ‘scout’ the emotional issues and try to put his attitude in some kind of context. Frankly, that’s smart scouting and good drafting policy to boot.

    What I’m curious to see is how quick he progresses. Seems to me with sensible coaching and good support, he should be taking to pitching like a duck to water, if the raw talent is there. I commented on beerleaguer a bit back that fully developed poise and confidence in a pitcher (as exhibited by cole hamels) is a rare thing and combined with talent it’s very valuable. If the phillies have gone into this with their eyes open, then you’d hope to see signs of the same with drabek.

    Great writing by the way James. You’re doing some outstanding work and as a Phillies phan I certainly appreciate it.

  7. Thanks guys. From my point of view, taking him at 18 was a no brainer. Every year, first round picks flop and fall on their face, especially as you get lower in the round, while 39th round picks make big league contributions. The draft shouldn’t be a wasted resource, but at the same time, when presented with a chance to gamble on a kid with a million dollar arm, I think it’s a worthy gamble.

    On a side note, I remember the Baseball America article (it’s a premium article, or I’d link it) and one of the people interviewed, when asked about Drabek’s tantrums and kicking stuff, said “Josh Beckett was kind of the same way, but he doesn’t really act like that as much anymore”. We’ll have a better idea in a year, I suppose.

  8. Going back to a previous article on Jason Jaramillo’s defense: You can tell how a catcher is doing defensively by reading the boxscore log and looking at how many 3rd strikes a catcher has to throw to first base for the putout. Usually means the ball got away from the catcher on the strikeout pitch. Another is to watch how the catcher throws out the lead-off man when he attempts to steal. A good gague.

  9. A big issue for guys like Drabek is transitioning from Dad as coach/mentor to believing that your professional coaches may have something worth considering, when their opinion differs from Dad’s. It will be interesting to see how this issue resolves itself in 2007.

  10. I am from the Woodlands and had the fortune to watch Drabek pitch his Junior and Senior Years. In his Junior year the attitude was very noticeable. I saw him throw a no-hitter, and in this game he was laughing and talking smack. As a senior I saw him throw a complete game No hitter 19 Strikeout game, and in this game I could not see emotions or any temper. My point is that the kid had a durastic change, and he has matured. He was the leader of that AMAZING 2006 Woodlands team, and he was looked up to by everybody! I am not saying he does not have a temper but what I am saying is he is an amazing competitor with great stuff, and he is maturing! SO MLB lookout for Kyle Drabek!

  11. the amazing thing is those were all 2 seam fastballs hitting 94. kyle never threw the 4 seam in hs.

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