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Kyle Drabek's Strike Zone Woes

A former top-30 prospect initially considered the big get in the December 2009 Roy Halladay deal, Kyle Drabek enters 2012 simply hoping to prove to the Blue Jays that he can catch the plate often enough to serve as the club's fifth starter. Drabek walked 6.3 batters per nine innings in the majors last year, and his wildness didn't improve much in Triple-A, either (4.9 per nine).

Despite those control woes, ESPN's Keith Law (Insider subscription required) included the 24-year-old Drabek on his list of young players primed for better things this season. Here's Law's prescription for Drabek's Steve Blass Disease:

Drabek didn't lose velocity, but the overthrowing cost him command and flattened out his slider, while his curveball -- his best pitch in the minors -- became almost a weapon of last resort. The Blue Jays have been working with Drabek on keeping his delivery on line to the plate and keeping himself calm on the mound, but they might also need to tinker with his pitch selection and get him throwing that plus breaking ball more.

While Drabek got love from scouts in the minors for his knockout breaking pitches, they were barely used in 2011. He threw his slider about 8% of the time, and his curveball 4%. Drabek often missed below the knees with his breaking stuff:

Drabek's curveball and slider location, 2011

Just under 31% of his curves and sliders were thrown within the strike zone, the lowest rate among starting pitchers who tossed at least 150 breakers in 2011:

Pitcher Zone%
Kyle Drabek 30.5%
J. A. Happ 31.8%
Dillon Gee 33.4%
Zach Britton 34.0%
Travis Wood 34.2%
Josh Johnson 34.4%
Ross Ohlendorf 34.6%
Mike Minor 34.9%
Chris Narveson 36.4%
Clay Hensley 37.4%


The main reason that Drabek all but shelved his breaking stuff is that his poor fastball location so often put him in hitter's counts. He tried to pound right-handed hitters inside and stay on the outside corner versus lefties, but he just ended up missing off the plate to the arm side:

Drabek's fastball location, 2011

He also brought up the rear among starters in fastball control, putting the lowest percentage of heaters in the zone:

Pitcher Zone%
Kyle Drabek 39.0%
Brian Duensing 40.0%
Barry Zito 41.3%
Randall Delgado 41.6%
Livan Hernandez 41.6%
Hiroki Kuroda 43.3%
Carlos Villanueva 43.6%
Ryan Vogelsong 44.2%
Luis Mendoza 44.4%
Aaron Cook 44.5%


Law mentioned Drabek overthrowing, and the numbers suggest that when he reached back for more, his control did indeed get worse. Drabek had a 40 Zone% when throwing his fastball between 90-92 mph, but 34% when he threw 93-94 mph. With so few heaters in the zone, hitters swung at just 38% of Drabek's fastballs (the MLB average was 45%).

For Drabek, as is the case with most other hurlers, his success rides on his ability to locate his fastball. In 2011, he got into an all-too-predictable pattern of throwing a first-pitch fastball (71% of the time), missing (just 37% caught the plate) and then essentially being left without the option of going to his typically plus breaking pitches. And in response, hitters just stopped swinging at the fastball and let Drabek bury himself. Without fastball control, a great curveball or slider ceases to matter.

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