April 10th 2012 was Kyle Drabek’s first start of the season for the Toronto Blue Jays. He began last season in a very similar spot, starting in the opening series against the Twins, and having a few good outings afterward. Last year the wheels fell off around the end of April, with lots of walks and runs allowed in a start against the Yankees. Eventually, he was given a plane ticket to Las Vegas, after his June 12 start against the Red Sox, in which he gave up 8 runs in 4 innings. Perseverance, talent, and the promise of youth brought him right back to the Rogers Centre, and he was facing the same team that effectively knocked him into AAA last year.
So what was different about Kyle? He was certainly a year older, and perhaps a year wiser. A lot of what has changed about Kyle Drabek, I can’t be sure of. There is one thing I can be sure had changed: he had practiced during the spring using training wheels.
Reports from the mainstream media, including Sportsnet last night, have informed us that the Blue Jays have been trying to get Drabek to correct a mechanical flaw, one where his pitches miss up and away to right-handed batters. In order to correct the flaw, he needed a consistent release point. To get a consistent release point he needed to finish more towards home plate, not falling off to first base. To finish toward home, he needed to find a consistent landing spot. To keep his landing spot, he got yellow ropes. Observe:
Much like a set of training wheels, the ropes make sure that Kyle doesn’t fall off too far to one side or the other, remaining balanced in his delivery. Practice, is practice, though. What I found most interesting was what Kyle did, on his own, after 6 weeks of ropes in the bullpen.
He went right out at the start of the game, and drew a deep line in the dirt on the mound with his spikes. Right where the end of the rope would be to mark his landing zone. The message, to me, is obvious. Kyle Drabek sees that his coaches want to help him. He can see that their guidance has made him more consistent, a better pitcher. He’s also ready to use the training wheels, and he doesn’t much care who sees them with them on.
It worked out pretty well. The team that pounded on him in his last big league start could only manage 6 baserunners in 5 and 1/3 innings of work. They only pushed one run across the plate while he was on the mound. Overall, a big step in the right direction, if you will excuse my use of the metaphor after all this foot and stride talk.
My talk of training wheels, however, is probably an unkind comparison. You and I can learn ride a bike, but MLB pitchers are doing things that go well beyond the skills required for cycling. It would be a lot more like flying an airplane.
There are a lot of moving parts in a pitching delivery, and in navigating an airplane. The one in the top middle position is the Artificial Horizon. It tells a pilot which way is up, and how far from horizontal he is, with absolute certainty. In poor weather conditions, and at night, pilots often get disoriented, and flying by sight can result in serious errors. When learning to fly with instrumentation, there is a period where learning to trust the instruments over your own initial instincts can be difficult. Drabek seems to be demonstrating faith in his ‘instrumentation’ even though he is new to using it.
I would certainly think that if pitching is anything as complicated as flying, then pitching in the majors is a lot like flying in a storm all year long. Facing the best scoring lineup in baseball is just about the nastiest kind of weather you can expect to pilot through. Credit goes to Drabek for using all the tools at his disposal to navigate through the Sox, even if it might look a little strange on the mound. Watch Kyle warm up before his next start, and we’ll see how long he keeps making lines in the dirt.