So much is evident in the way he carries himself to the mound, the way he takes it as his own at just 23 years old, and then the way he rages against imperfection.
“And we’ve toned it down a little bit,” Toronto Blue Jays manager John Farrell says, smiling.
Drabek is five starts into his big-league career, two starts into what figures to be his first full season, and already he is exceptional for the four pitches he throws, the ferocity with which he throws them and his unyielding belief in their outcome.
He took a no-hitter into the sixth inning last Saturday against the Minnesota Twins, ultimately allowing one hit over seven innings in his first career win. He gave up one earned run in six innings in Anaheim on Friday night, when he fought his command and a sometimes unpredictable strike zone, and once forgot to back up third base – frustrations that several times brought veteran and personal catcher Jose Molina(notes) to the mound, where he’d place a soothing hand on the rookie’s shoulder.
“What I do is make sure he stays calm,” Molina says, smiling. “Make sure he doesn’t get too excited. I mean, 23 years old in the big leagues, anyone gets excited a little bit.”
Sometimes it works. Sometimes, as Farrell says, “It can work against you.”
“It was hard,” Drabek says, “especially when I was younger.”
Drabek wants to win.
It was true then, as a boy, as Doug Drabek’s boy, as it is today.
Yes, he nods, the expectation for such can get the better of him. He had a 30-1 record in high school, at The Woodlands outside Houston. He was the first-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2006, then the centerpiece of the trade that brought Roy Halladay(notes). He made three starts for the Blue Jays last September, allowed exactly three runs in each of them and lost them all, but had all but secured his place in the Jays’ rotation come 2011.
But the notion that teams lose, that he would lose, took time to comprehend.
In high school, he says, “We almost never lost. So it was a little weird losing games. It took some getting used to. Not that I got used to it. But there’s some things you can’t control in a game.”
He shrugs, an admission that he is who he is.
“It’s gotten a lot better,” he says.
In his start against the Angels, a game in which he said his two-seamer’s effectiveness was “50-50” and couldn’t find a reliable grip on his changeup, he was down two runs early, then refused to concede another run. He clung to Molina, who in turn rode Drabek’s spirited determination, a partnership both players intend to keep.
“I got Molina back there,” he says. “He helped me out great last start. And he did it again in this one.
“He just kept telling me, ‘Relax and we’ll get through this inning.’ He told me to listen to him. And I always do.”
In two starts, over 204 pitches, Drabek has refused not a single pitch Molina has suggested.
“Zero,” he says.
And who knows a pitcher better than his catcher?
A career .236 hitter, Molina has played a dozen major league seasons because of his mitt, because before Drabek there was Brandon Morrow(notes), and before Morrow there was Ervin Santana(notes), and before Santana there were other souls in need of a hand on their shoulders.
Like the rest of the organization, Molina sees a young man of extreme talent, built around an unusual competitive spirit. And he feels a young pitcher trying to become his own man.
“He wants to prove a lot of people wrong,” Molina says, and the notion of that sticks in your head.
Drabek was an elite prep pitcher, a first-round pick and high-end prospect, so well thought of he’d helped bring a Cy Young Award winner to Philly. Where’s the disrespect, exactly?
“In the big leagues, he wants to make a name for himself, that he didn’t get here just because his dad played in the big leagues,” Molina says. “Every outing he has that on his shoulders. He wants to prove he’s not just Doug Drabek’s son. He’s Kyle. He doesn’t want to be compared to his dad.
“It’s a shame some people do that. He’s got the stuff to beat anyone.”
And so Drabek’s fight is Molina’s, too. So he wears a path to the mound, and to the kid’s side, and to that kid’s future. Heck, they can be hard and cold and desperate together, if that’s what it takes.
“I would do it with everybody,” Molina says. “But, especially young kids. When you have a kid, you just hug your kid. I love him.”