Dissecting Kyle Drabek's Prospectdom

In the game of prospect evaluation, everyone has their favorite sleepers, and everyone has a few top guys they’re utterly unimpressed with.

One guy who falls into the latter category for me is Blue Jays righthander Kyle Drabek, who often appears near the top of pitching prospect lists.

It’s easy to see why he does if you look at his stuff. Drabek offers two plus pitches: a 90-96 mph fastball with plus movement and a short, sharp, hard curve in the 81-85 mph range.

There’s no denying that pitchers have become aces with less than that, but the question with Drabek is: How long do we keep drooling over those two pitches and start considering what he actually does?

Soon to be 23 years old, Drabek has made eight stops in his career, ranging from Rookie ball to the majors. His strikeout rates are as follows:

5.40
7.67
4.50
4.43
10.80
7.10
7.33
6.35

Not that impressive, right? There’s one ace-worthy whiff rate in the bunch, the 10.80 K/9 from High-A in 2009 (just a nine-start period), which coincides neatly with the time we saw Drabek shoot up prospect lists.

Now, while I’m a pretty statistically-minded analyst, I understand that strikeout rates aren’t everything. It’s not like you have to whiff 8 guys per nine to be an ace. Heck, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay had sub-8.00 K/9 marks this year, and I’m not about to argue against their greatness.

But Drabek, of course, is putting these numbers up in the minors (save for the 6.35 mark at the end of the list, which came in three big league starts). The 7.10 and 7.33 marks are both from Double-A, in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

If he’s striking out 7.33 per nine at age 22 in Double-A, and whiff rates tend to decline in the majors, then isn’t it reasonable to expect Drabek to whiff, say, 6.8-7 batters per nine in the majors?

It’s tough to be a prime difference-maker consistently with that sort of average strikeout number. Sure, you get one-year wonders like Clay Buchholz, R.A. Dickey, and Trevor Cahill, but nobody posted sub-3.50 ERAs in both 2009 and 2010 with a K/9 below 7. That’s pretty telling.

Making matters worse, Drabek doesn’t have the command of Lee or Halladay, as he walked nearly four batters per nine in Double-A this year. That means he had a 1.94 K/BB ratio, which is just average.

What’s causing this disconnect between his two great pitches and his mediocre numbers? I’m not sure, but it could be that Drabek’s lack of an effective changeup caught up to him after he left High-A, and he hasn’t figured out how to either improve it or compensate for its poor quality. It’s telling that he had to repeat Double-A and failed to make substantive improvements. Another strike against Drabek is his small build, which doesn’t suggest durability; indeed, he’s already gone under the knife for Tommy John surgery a few years ago.

To be fair, it’s not like the guy has no ability. But statistically, there’s little about Drabek that proves to be solidly above-average. He does a decent job keeping the ball down, thanks to the plus sink on his pitches, which does help offset the mediocre K/BB. But that alone is nowhere near enough to push Drabek toward ace status in future years. He’s more likely a mid-rotation type with durability questions.

I don’t mean to sit here and just destroy the guy, but I understand it’s decidedly odd to exclude a prospect with such high acclaim from one’s Top 100 list, and figured it would be worthwhile to explain my opinion of him, since it’s in such dissent from the prospect mainstream. I hope this provided a bit more perspective.

Tags: Kyle Drabek Toronto Blue Jays

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