05 July 2016


Joe Reisel's Archives

Oliver Drake, consider yourself a major-league caliber pitcher. Photo courtesy of Steven Goldburg/Norfolk Tides.
On June 21, the Orioles recalled relief pitcher Oliver Drake from their AAA affiliate, the Norfolk Tides. I believed that promotion was long overdue, even granting that the Orioles have had several right-handed relief pitchers, because Drake had pitched very effectively. For example, I didn't understand why the Orioles promoted the relatively inexperienced Mychal Givens when Drake was pitching more effectively at a higher level and had a longer track record than Givens.

There's no denying that Oliver Drake has pitched very well for Norfolk. Last season, Drake had a 0.82 ERA - and allowed zero unearned runs - while striking out 66 batters in 44 innings. He did walk 16 in those 44 innings, but he balanced that by only allowing 23 hits and 1 home run. This season, he had a period during which he struggled, but he still has a 2.02 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings. He has allowed more baserunners - 13 walks and 18 hits in those 26 2/3 innings - but over is last 12 innings, he allowed no runs on 5 hits and 2 walks, with 23 strikeouts.

I believe that almost any pitcher who can be as effective as Oliver Drake has been in AAA can and probably should be an effective major-league set-up man, and there's an excellent chance he could be an effective closer at least for a short time. After all, Jim Henderson closed for a season. When you compare Henderson to Drake, it's ludicrous to think that Oliver Drake can't be a closer.

I do understand the reasoning why Drake hasn't been given a real opportunity. He relies heavily on a trick pitch, his forkball / splitter. And he has a deceptive delivery in which he hides the ball from the batter for a long period. There is a legitimate fear that such trickery won't work against big-league hitters and that batters are swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. The thinking is that major-league hitters will not be fooled and will lay off the non-strikes, forcing Drake to throw his rather ordinary fastball for strikes. The batters will respond by hitting him hard and Drake will be ineffective.

While I have no real way of telling whether major-league hitters will be fooled by his deception, I can look at his performance to see if batters are swinging at pitches out of the zone. Over the past two years, I've scored 77 Norfolk games, 50 in 2015 and 27 so far in 2016. We can look at Drake's pitching and determine if Drake is getting a low percentage of called strikes. The theory behind this is that if Drake isn't getting a low percentage of called strikes, then batters aren't exclusively swinging and missing at pitches out of the strike zone and that Drake can be effective even when he's throwing pitches in the strike zone.

The below table shows the results of the pitches I've Drake throw over the past two seasons:

Called Ball
Called Strike
Swinging Strike

That I've seen Drake throw the same number of pitches in the 27 games I've scored in 2016 as in the 50 games I scored in 2015 is simply luck of the draw; for a variety of reasons I've seen more of the games in which Drake pitched this year than last. That the number of pitches is exactly the same is sheer coincidence.

The data shows that when Drake was extraordinarily effective in 2015, Drake got more strikes on swings in 2015 than he has in 2016. But I don't think the data necessarily implies that batters swung at pitches out of the strike zone in 2015 and stopped doing so in 2016. If that were the case, then Drake would have substantially more called balls in 2016 than in 2015. He doesn't. To me, it's more likely that batters were swinging and missing at borderline pitches in 2015 and taking them in 2016. That would imply that Drake doesn't rely on batters swinging at "bad" pitches and that he doesn't necessarily have to throw more hittable pitches.

Oliver Drake has been extremely effective in AAA over the past season-and-a-half. He's earned a real shot at a major-league job. The Orioles have a very good and very deep bullpen, so Drake may be limited to mop-up roles. He's not the "ideal" relief pitcher candidate because he doesn't have a high-90's fastball, but he has earned a real shot at a big-league job. I believe that Drake should be an effective seventh- or eighth-inning reliever and wouldn't have a problem giving him a chance at being a closer.

(Since this article was originally written, Drake was optioned back to Norfolk after two ineffective outings. Two ineffective outings, of course, mean very little and I stand by the opinions expressed in this article.)


Pip said...

Love the title!
Made me start singing "who will buy"
And I agree. There's been a lot of dreck taking the mound this season(Thanks Dan!) but I think Drake will return and do well.

Roger said...

Drake already had some good innings last year. I disagree that he should have been ahead of Mychal Givens. Givens has great stuff and has proven to be a reliable arm (with a few glitches here and there). Givens needed to be moved quickly as he was older when he converted to pitching and his timeline was different. Besides his stuff is better than Drake's. Drake would have been a good replacement for O'Day if he had left. I was surprised watching him that he doesn't throw hard with all his K count and it took O'Day quite a while to find his niche. So Drake may take longer to adjust to the majors. His biggest drawback right now is that he's not left handed. The O's have lots of RHPs but few LHPs and that's why 2nd rate arms are getting shots (Duensing, Miranda, Aquino). I would love to see Donnie Hart or Jason Stoffel get chances too.....