As far as contemporary Orioles pitching prospects were ever concerned, Oliver Drake was never a name to muster much arousal.
The former Midshipman has mostly garnered a too-good-for-Triple-A-but-probably-isn’t-good-enough-for-the-big-leagues kind of reputation since being drafted in 2008. While concerns of sheer stuff translating to success hasn’t necessarily been an uncommon plague of the Orioles farm system in recent years, 43rd round picks such as Drake hardly ever pivot into the realm of sufficiency.
Still, Drake showed growth at every level of the minors before being called up in 2015 for a 15.2 inning audition, where he managed a 2.87 ERA/3.52 FIP with a respectable 23.6% strikeout rate. However, walks, as they were in the minors, remained steadfastly high. Matching his minor league career-high of 12.5%, Drake managed the same number in his first taste of big league baseball, much to do with struggling fastball command.
As a two-pitch pitcher with a fastball ranging from 88-93 MPH, Drake doesn’t have the luxury of living inside the strike zone. Forced to work the perimeter of the plate, Drake’s fastball command is not only a necessity in its own right, but is much needed in order to setup what is an underrated splitter.
Drake was called up again by the Orioles in late June of last season, though his second major league stint was less fortuitous. Despite opponents succeeding in five of 22 official plate appearances, all five of his surrendered hits were of the extra-base variety, including four doubles and a home run. Though his strikeout rate hovered around his norm, walks were again an issue, this time at an 18.5% frequency.
However, as a late August call-up, Drake seemed to find more of a rhythm with his fastball.
Earlier in the summer, Drake’s fastball problems centered around not only throwing strikes, but quality strikes. Comparing his June stint with his 12.1 innings at the end of the season, his colonizing of the outer-half of the strike zone was the sort of change a soft-throwing right hander would need to make. Especially against righty bats. The same could be said against left-handers, where Drake not only built off of an already solidified approach, but seemed to have purposely added the high fastball as well.
For Drake, a growing foundation to his fastball is an intriguing series of events because his fastball has lingered as his most glaring setback. In his 33.2 career innings, hitters haven’t consistently ravaged his fastball, but a combination of poor command and a lack of velocity had made his life that much more difficult.
Regardless of a .241 opponent batting average against his fastball, opponents have managed an astounding .308 ISO. For most of his big league career, his fastball has either resulted in unwanted power, or a tool to delay the inevitable.
While we aren’t necessarily looking at a complete turnaround in regards to fastball command in what is somewhat a minuscule sample size, the advancements are nonetheless a step in the right direction. If Drake is able to further harness what is a very unique over-the-top arm slot, this only builds upon a very advanced splitter.
And because his fastball command creeped further into safer, more effective boundaries of the strike zone, Drake was able to use his devastating splitter more and more.
Even when his fastball command was off, Drake’s splitter remained not only his most relied upon ground ball pitch (66.7 GB%), but a trusted swing-and-miss (14.9% whiff rate) and strikeout (37.0 K%) offering. If quality fastball location continues to compound, the respect of his fastball will become a must, while the perceived velocity of the pitch will also see its gains.
So, where does the current state of the Orioles leave Oliver Drake?
As it stands, we can pencil in Zach Britton, Mychal Givens, Darren O’Day, Brad Brach and Donnie Hart into the Orioles bullpen, with the five established starters as shoe-ins. That leaves Logan Verrett, Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, T.J. McFarland, Drake and even Logan Ondrusek as realistic possibilities to fill out the rest of the staff.
Buck Showalter, who is likely to want a bit more roster versatility both in lineup construction and day-to-day operations, may end up swapping a bullpen spot for another bench bat, especially with one or two Rule-5 picks that could certainly be asked to contribute in 2017. Such a proposition would likely leave Drake on the outside looking in.
If my understanding is correct, Drake does have one more options season upcoming, which does provide Drake and the Orioles said flexibility. Even so, he’s compiled a 1.85 ERA/2.22 FIP with 33 saves over the last two seasons at Triple-A Norfolk, leaving nothing else to prove.
The Orioles aren’t hurting for effective relievers at the big league level, but be mindful of Drake’s value. Capable of multiple innings with the right pitch to get both lefties and righties out, Drake settles in as a perfect mid-game reliever with a delivery nestling into its own comfort. He’s certainly a more promising option than Ondrusek and the triage of long relievers.
Drake isn’t a splashy player with a flashy role, and as hard as it is to invest confidence in a 30 year-old two-pitch righty, the Orioles remain among the best at finding and trusting new friends in low places.