Time Off Helps Drabek Turn Around His Career
READING, PA.—When the big league manager compares you to a Hall of Famer, it's a sign he sees big things in your future.
When the general manager refuses to trade you for a Cy Young winner, it's obvious he thinks he's got something special on hand.
The Phillies have felt that way for a long time about Kyle Drabek—it's no wonder they wouldn't budge when Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi insisted he be included in a deal for Roy Halladay.
Kyle Drabek (Photo by Mike Janes)
Three years ago, when Drabek was a Texas high school phenom with a volatile temperament, the Phillies ignored the potential risks and drafted him 18th overall.
Now he's considered untouchable in an organization deep with high-end talent.
"I like him because he's strong in his legs and his hips, and he's a drop-and-drive kind of pitcher," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said earlier this summer, when Drabek's name was a constant in the trade-rumor circuit. "I like his mechanics. He's a strong-bodied kid, like a Tom Seaver type, and he's got that kind of stuff."
Drabek spent several anxious weeks in late July wondering if his future destination was Citizen's Bank Park, or somewhere north of the border.
When the Phillies landed Cliff Lee, instead of Halladay, Drabek—and many throughout the Phillies organization—was relieved.
"I'm just excited that the Phillies wanted to keep me," said the 21-year-old righthander, with Double-A Reading. "It kind of shows that they like me, and I like being here."
Growing Up In The Game
Drabek is considered the top pitching prospect in the Phillies organization these days, and one of the best in all the minor leagues, but there was a time not long ago the Phillies were having second thoughts about him.
Drabek drew the wrath of some in the Phillies organization when he showed up for big league camp in 2007. They thought he was out of shape, not working hard enough, not taking the demands of pro ball seriously.
Which isn't surprising. The game always came so easily to him. He is, after all, a prodigy. Virtual baseball royalty. The son of former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek, he grew up in big league clubhouses, shagging fly balls in Camden Yards or U.S. Cellular Field, taking tips from big leaguers.
"His world and others' were totally different," Phillies scouting director Marti Wolever said. "Some things came a little bit easier for Kyle than they did for others. Consequently he may have taken that for granted."
He was so gifted—as a power-hitting infielder, not just a pitcher—that he would call his shots in batting practice. Point to left, knock a few out in that direction. Point to right, same thing.
He performed before crowds of 10,000 in the Texas state tournament. He played in plush minor league parks in front of scouts from every major league team. Bench-jockies got all over him, because of his pedigree. Loud-mouthed fans screamed that he was "o-ver-ray-ted."
None of it fazed him.
"Most kids will vaporize when they see those scouts," Phillies scout Steve Cohen said. "He didn't really care who was there. He didn't even notice. He's so intensely into the game you never have to wonder where his heart or mind is."
He was a baseball-playing machine with an off-the-charts desire to compete and win—"dis-functionally competitive," is how one scout termed it.
The Phillies, enamored, had never seen anything like it.
Was there some risk? Of course. There was a drinking incident, and he slammed his car into a tree. He was high-spirited. Rambunctious.
The Phillies looked at that 97 mph fastball, the devastating curve, the steely nerve, and felt it was a manageable risk.
They went all in.
Despite some emotional flaws they loved his ultra-competitive nature and his willingness to do anything to win a ballgame.
"He steps on the mound, he's trying to beat your ass," Cohen said. "That's a separator. Some guys get caught up in their numbers. The thing that drives him is winning. He's got that fire like (Cole) Hamels does. He just won't give in."
Surgery Changes Everything
Drabek's pro debut didn't go so well that summer, when he finished with a 7.71 ERA in six starts in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
His 2007 season was a near-disaster—but it may have saved his career.
Drabek felt a tightness in his right arm 10 starts into that season at low Class A Lakewood. He tried to flex it after each pitch but the pain kept getting worse.
"It was killing," he said.
He struck out the last batter he faced—with an 80 mph fastball. He knew something was wrong. His arm was examined, he was sidelined for three weeks, then took the mound again in mid June. That lasted all of three batters.
He couldn't go any longer. A few days later he learned that he had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He needed Tommy John surgery.
"When they told me that, my heart dropped," Drabek said. "I knew that I wasn't going to be able to play for a while, and that killed me."
It may instead have been his salvation. During that long, gruelling road back, Drabek had time to think. To reflect. He realized that if he wanted to get back to those big league parks, he needed to grow up. Respect the game. Work at it. Appreciate it more than he ever had.
"I knew that I was going to have to change things. I think this helped me realize it faster."
Everything, people around the Phillies now tell you, has changed with Drabek. His demeanor. His work ethic. His maturity level.
Everything except that devastating pitch combination, one that has helped him go a combined 11-3, 3.17 pitching for high Class A Clearwater and Reading, though he's shown signs of fatigue in recent weeks as he's approached 150 innings. He's never come close to pitching the 150 innings he's logged so far, and it has shown at times.
"He's never had a season this long," Reading pitching coach Steve Schrenk said. "I don't think he's getting tired; it has nothing with his arm. It's just a little bit of mental fatigue. You have to learn how to push through that."
Just a year after returning to the mound following surgery he's throwing as hard as ever, competing as intensely as ever. That innate wild streak has been tempered, for the most part. He's learned to corral his emotions to handle adversity: the bloop hit, the bad call or the rare ball that leaves the yard.
The Tommy John experience left a noticeable scar on Drabek's inner right arm, but it affected him deeper than that.
"His setback, in some regards, was a bit of a blessing," Wolever said. "It made him realize this can all be gone in the drop of a hat.
"He lost some valuable (development) time but he gained some valuable experience," Wolever said. "The reality set in that this isn't quite as easy as he thought it would be. He lost 18 months (to rehab), but the reality is he's where he should be right now, if not even a little bit ahead."
Mike Drago is a sports writer for the Reading (Pa.) Eagle