Where did that come from? When did Kyle Drabek stop thinking like a linebacker, in his manager's words, and become more of a quarterback, in his own words?
According to Drabek, it goes back to the early days of spring training. After a lost 2011 season in which he experimented with four or five different mechanical changes, he and manager John Farrell and pitching coach Bruce Walton settled on one particular philosophy and approach. He was given borders – literally, in the case of ropes that were laid out to keep his delivery straight to the plate – but also mentally. "Reduce and refine," are the words that Farrell uses to describe the process of settling on a useful arsenal of pitches.
There will be difficult patches ahead, to be sure. But Sunday's 9-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles suggested that the work the Blue Jays have done with Drabek is producing tangible results. The Orioles stacked their lineup with five left-handed batters and a switch-hitter. Twice they took the lead, scoring an unearned run after a fielding error by Drabek and again in the sixth on a two-out home run by Adam Jones off the facing of the third deck. Yet Drabek was impervious. Twice he induced double-play grounders, including after a leadoff walk in the seventh inning that came on the heels of a long wait in the dugout while his teammates put up seven runs in response to Jones's homer.
On a weekend when the Blue Jays unveiled their top-secret strategy of Brett Lawrie trying to steal home with the bases loaded and Jose Bautista at the plate – the strategy's failure was a talking point after Saturday's 6-4 loss – it was the revelation of Kyle Drabek, thinking man's pitcher, that most resonated.
"I guess I can see that," Drabek said when Farrell's suggestion he had been too much of a linebacker in 2011 was relayed. "They [linebackers]just want to attack, kind of what I did last year. I've had to change up to quarterback, and think more and make the most right decisions I can."
As his catcher, Jeff Mathis, made clear after Drabek's career-high 7 1/3 innings of six-hit, six-strikeout pitching, the movement on the right-hander's pitches suggests he can be a big-time major-leaguer "if he can keep his pitches down." The decision was made to rely heavily on a sinking, two-seam fastball, changeup and curveball. Shown less often was the four-seam fastball, cutter and slider.
"I just don't think he was feeling it," Mathis said of Drabek's four-seam fastball. "It just seemed as if his sinker, curve and changeup were more powerful pitches for him today."
But is there more to it than that? Drabek denied that it meant he was shelving his slider and cutter, but Farrell did not fight the suggestion that the Blue Jays are pruning Drabek's arsenal if not necessarily taking a hatchet to it. "We talked about taking three quality pitches and making them more consistent, rather than going with four or five pitches which, in some ways, is kind of like ramming a square peg into a round hole," Farrell said.
"We put much more emphasis on the two-seamer to give him a pitch that has late life in the strike zone," the manager added. "It gets [opponents]to put the ball on the ground, and any young pitcher, when they realize they have late life in the strike zone, they relax and trust their stuff a little more."
Mathis doubled up on changeups and curves, and Drabek's willingness to throw the curve, which is, after all, the family pitch since his father Doug had one of the best, is no small feat. Drabek unleashed 11 wild pitches in 18 major-league games last season (four in one game) and had nine in 15 Triple-A games. Relaxation and trust are more than just clichés when it comes to Drabek. If this is a harbinger, if the light bulb has really gone on, the Jays won't have to wait for Travis D'Arnaud and Anthony Gose to show up to reap some benefits from the Roy Halladay deal.