Is Kyle Drabek Done?

Yes. Probably. If you’re in a hurry, you can now go do whatever you should be doing instead of reading about no-longer-prospecty baseball players. But if you’re not in a hurry, know this: there’s a chance he can survive, if only a small chance.

Kyle Drabek is rowing against a mighty tide that seeks to dash what’s left of his career against the jagged rocks. The former Phillies first-round pick (don’t fret, Ruben-haters — the really good guys in this draft were already gone) had a mediocre minor league career followed by a wretched major league one. Over 177 injury-plagued innings, Drabek has been a TTO arsonist: 6.1 K/9, 5.7 BB/9, and 1.2 HR/9. His career ERA/FIP is 5.27/5.42. When hitters die and go to heaven, they face him every night. And yet the Arizona Diamondbacks recently signed him to a minor league deal. What might they be thinking?

Drabek has been through Tommy John surgery twice, in 2007 and again in 2012. Here’s a list of repeat TJ offenders — you can sort on “Back to playing” to see who, well, made it back to playing. It’s largely a grim list, but there are some pitchers who came back to perform decently. As you can see from perusing the list, and this post, the vast majority of those are relievers.

Drabek’s major league performance so far suggests little more should be expected of him. In the expansion era there have been 73 starting pitchers who “achieved” a FIP of 5+ in at least 150 innings before age 28. Here they are — Drabek checks in at #27.  The name that jumps out most prominently on this list is Joe Nathan:

Through age 27         IP        ERA        FIP         K/9          BB/9          HR/9

Nathan                       187       4.61       5.72          5.6            5.2               1.4

Drabek                       177       5.27        5.42         6.1             5.7               1.2

Entering his age-28 season, Nathan was a failed starter with one shoulder arthroscope to his credit. That year the Giants converted him into reliever, and after season’s end converted him into A.J. Pierzynski. Nathan went on to rack up the eighth-most saves in MLB history, which is a pretty fair achievement even if you aren’t into saves.

How did he do it? Unfortunately, pitch-by-pitch data isn’t available back to the years (1999-2000) when Nathan did most of his damage as a starter. But a look at Nathan’s pitch values nevertheless suggests some clues. One big clue in particular: his slider was devastating. By fleeing to the bullpen, Nathan probably was able to add a little heat to the slider, and perhaps able to throw it more often. Hitters would only see him once as a reliever, but this may not have been a huge factor, since hitters were beating Nathan like a drum as soon as the cute guest-PA-announcer-kid finished shouting “play ball!” Get to him a third time, though, and it was like walking to the plate with a plutonium-corked bat.

One can imagine that being in the bullpen enabled Nathan to add some velo and subtract the amount of times he threw his weaker pitches. Salomon Torres presents a similar profile: a failed starter in the 1990s, Torres disappeared off the baseball earth for a few years before resurfacing with the Pirates as an effective reliever in 2002. Torres’ out pitches were the slider and splitter; he featured both as a reliever evolving toward the latter as he aged.

Justin Miller also made the transition from awful starter to solid reliever. Like the others, he did not wholly abandon a pitch when moving to the pen, but he placed greater emphasis on his — you guessed it — excellent slider, at the expense of his not-so-excellent fastball. Miller didn’t add much velocity in becoming a reliever; it seems to be the change in pitch selection that helped him turn the corner.

These career paths might be helpful signs for Drabek, but in at least two senses they aren’t: unlike the other guys mentioned above, Drabek lacks a carrying pitch. Nathan had an excellent slider, as did Miller and (at times) Torres, even when the rest of their pitches were failing them. Drabek’s pitches are all below average, so he appears to lack a safe base from which to make his bullpen transition (although to be fair, all of Drabek’s pitching stats suffer from the pain and embarrassment of small sample size). By the numbers, the curve is the least bad of his offerings; perhaps focusing on becoming a fastball-curve guy would benefit his development.

Focusing on the curve brings us to Drabek’s second problem: TJ survivors appear to struggle with breaking pitches. Throwing more curves at this stage of his career may be the last thing Drabek can (or is willing) to do. It’s not impossible: Jason Isringhausen leaned heavily on the curve as he remade himself into an elite closer. But there aren’t a lot of examples here.

Perhaps Drabek can develop his changeup, his second-least-bad pitch. It appears that, following his surgery, he tried to emphasize his cutter, a pitch that hasn’t been kind to him yet, but an approach that did help The Beard to become fearworthy. Perhaps a superior pitching coach could help Drabek, but here’s who the Snakes just hired.

Despite these difficulties, the Diamondbacks nevertheless have an incentive to pick through the Drabekian rubble to see if they can salvage any value. Even with their spiffy new TV deal the D’Backs will always be no better than second-tier in terms of resources and attendance, especially problematic with the Dodgers juggernaut in the same division. Finding cheap pitching hand-me-downs will enable the organization to invest elsewhere (as it is already doing with the lineup).

Given both Drabek’s limited major league success and his limited major league appearances, deciding how to reconstruct him may be even more difficult than such projects usually are. Drabek doesn’t have huge platoon splits, and while for now that means both southbats and northbats will feast on his pitches, over the longer haul it may mean that he could be useful as a swing man or multi-inning reliever.

The Diamondbacks have had success in re-imaging double-TJ survivor Daniel Hudson as a reliever, but he had already had much more success as a starter than any of the other pitchers mentioned in this post (except Tommy John himself). Indeed, the Snakes may move Hudson back to the rotation next year. But perhaps the work with Hudson has given the organization some clues for how to deal with a much more challenging project.

I’m rooting for Drabek, but I’m taking the under.

I'm a recovering lawyer and unrecovered Cubs fan who writes about baseball from time to time.

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