The pedigree is there but the strikeouts haven't been in the minor leagues, which raises a question about Kyle Drabek: Can you ever become an ace in the American League East without punching out a parade of batters?
To their credit, the Toronto Blue Jays have always stopped just short of saying that Drabek is a surefire ace. Sotto voce, they'll tell you he might be a No. 2 starter at the top end, which is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. Still, as a highly regarded pitching prospect whose father was a stalwart Major League starter and who is considered the centrepiece in the Blue Jays' forced trade of Roy Halladay, it is permissible to wonder what exactly the top end is for Drabek.
With the Blue Jays on their final day off of the spring, general manager Alex Anthopoulos watched Drabek work through six innings at the Bobby Mattick Training Centre on Monday against the New York Yankees' Triple-A farmhands. Drabek struck out four, walked three and allowed five hits without giving up an earned run, but, most importantly, he continued to pound the strike zone low and hone the changeup that is needed by every dominant starting pitcher. He also corrected a tendency to put his body offline with his delivery. His fastball settled in at 93 to 95 miles an hour and he threw back-to-back changeups that were 85 and 86 miles an hour. Damned near rote, the whole thing was.
Anthopoulos has heard the chatter about Drabek, who has averaged 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings in his minor-league career. Yes, we are still attracted by gaudy numbers. His response is to focus on Drabek's rate of ground-ball outs - 50 per cent at Double-A New Hampshire last season, 62 per cent in three Major League starts - with the former number representing a 7-per-cent increase from the 15 games Drabek pitched at Double-A in 2009, when he was still with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Further, Anthopoulos urges a quick perusal of some of the numbers put up by the Boston Red Sox's Clay Buchholz: 17 wins, seven losses, a 2.33 earned-run average and 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in the majors to go with a 52-per-cent ground-ball percentage. In 2010, according to Stats Inc., the major league average ground-ball percentage was 45 per cent.
"If you watch Kyle's stuff, he certainly has strikeout ability with his fastball, curve and changeup," Anthopoulos said. "We prefer guys to pitch to contact to go deeper into games."
Pitching coach Bruce Walton has only two magic numbers for Drabek: 21 outs, 105 pitches. How he gets there is up to him. "He has the ability to strike guys out any time he wants," Walton said. "There will be days where he will have to strike guys out, but also days like this where he is going to get ground ball after ground ball. He has a lot of weapons. He can do both."
Drabek's spring has pretty much gone as well as could be scripted. He still has to pitch his way off this team, it appears, as does Jesse Litsch. The pitcher with the biggest hill to climb is Jo-Jo Reyes, who faces the New York Yankees on Wednesday night in Tampa - which means he'll get the Yankees' "A" team.
Drabek shrugged when he was asked if he was checking the calendar and counting down the days. Truth is, the schedule makes things a little erratic in the first month for a starter at the end of the rotation, anyhow, and the whole question of "Whose arm would you rather fiddle around with, the journeyman's or the prospect's?" is often a factor in the final decision. The words "service time" have not been spoken once, so far. His father, Doug, has pretty much stayed out of things this spring, he said, other than telling him, "Work hard, and if you go down [to the minors] hopefully you'll get back fast."
He's had his fastball command. He's no longer afraid to throw the changeup at any time - "Not any more," he said with a little chuckle that suggested memories of night sweats worrying about the pitch aren't that far removed. This is still one of the best rites of spring training: thinking about, worrying about and wondering about "the prospect." Beats the alternative.