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The long and winding road of Kyle Drabek

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Kyle Drabek
Kyle Drabek
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Drabek’s Long and Winding Road

As prospect writers covering the minor leagues, we make our best assessments based on what we see on a regular basis. The majority is done in person, with scouting reports & daily stats reading mixed in. We work from data and witnessing the process.

But none of that is perfect, and Blue Jays pitcher Kyle Drabek is a good example of that.

In 2010, Drabek pitched his way through his final few weeks in the Eastern League like a seasoned technician, dismantling whatever plan most hitters had when they stepped to the plate. He was in the zone, making every pitch, every start, appear effortless. However, that didn't last once he was promoted: made his major league debut in September of 2010, and in three starts, he got tagged for three losses, finishing with a 4.76 ERA through 17 innings and struck out 12.

He did what he needed to: he got in there. He got a bit of experience. However, in the majors he did not live up to the potential he showed in the minors.

Drabek was always an interesting player to see in person.  When he was in the Phillies organization he was still learning to harness his energy and direct that emotion in the most useful way. He could be wild, literally and figuratively, and often seemed unfocused.

But after he was traded to the Blue Jays, there was a noted difference. He was a more relaxed person and a more relaxed player, with improved presence and focus on the mound. At the time, he mentioned his father, former major leaguer Doug Drabek, had a positive influence and was helping Kyle shut out what didn’t serve him. The numbers reflected his emotional growth. 

When he returned to the majors in 2011, he made 14 starts, racking up just 51 strikeouts in 75 innings of work. He racked up the free passes, too, allowing 55 walks. He ended up back in Las Vegas. He improved in the big leagues in 2012 (4.67 ERA in 71 innings, although with a weak 47/47 K/BB ratio), but then the bottom fell out. Drabek hurt his elbow and required Tommy John surgery, his second since 2008.

His full recovery was followed by an excellent season in the minors in '13, level-jumping from Class-A to Triple-and ending with a combined 3.14 ERA in 43 innings and allowed just 6 walks. He struck out 35. He got a couple of innings of work with the Blue Jays, getting in three games.

The unfolding of Drabek’s career has been a surprise, but that’s actually not a surprise. That’s how this "prospecting" business works and figuring out what went wrong is the key.

Drabek has had a lot of the same problems in the majors as in the minors, though those issues weren’t ever-present in his final full season in Double-A. But while Double-A is often a huge testing point, and, in many cases, the final proving ground (not every player requires or sees Triple-A time) before the majors, Double-A is still not the majors. We can never fully predict how it will translate to major league success or failure.

At this point, what comes back is the other part of the picture, the part that often tells more than the talent: mentality. The high value of a healthy, tough mentality can’t be overstated, particularly when trying to overcome physical problems and get healthy as Drabek had to. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the wild-eyed, electric, confidence (Bryce Harper) that reporters salivate over when looking for a quote or a controversy, or the quieter, no less intense kind that reporters also love because that player is so damn likeable (Brandon Nimmo). They just have to have that focus, that ability to shake off the tough times, and stay the course without getting crushed by distraction or struggle. I believe Drabek has shown himself to be a player that can do that.

As for the kind of confident Drabek is, he always fell toward the middle. He wasn’t overly cocky, but he had a ways to go in terms of handling his business. On the mound, he needed to tone down the emotional tendencies that hurt him. He was humbled by his father’s guidance, and was vocal about that. His attitude improved at a very good pace, through each level. Those were all good signs.

So far this season, Drabek’s made five starts, going 2-2 with a 4.74 ERA, mostly keeping the walks to a minimum (11), with a healthy number of strikeouts (20). Mentally, Drabek is proven in my view. He’s had to overcome two surgeries, and his own weaknesses. He turned a corner once between the lines of the Eastern League, and now he has to do it again in Triple-A.

Drabek has the resources to overcome and grow further. And, perhaps when next he returns to the majors, stick. At just 26, he could still have a significant career.