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Why MLB teams like Blue Jays keep picking up Oliver Drake

By acquiring right-hander Oliver Drake on Monday, the Blue Jays made a move that is unlikely to go down as a franchise changer or send shockwaves through MLB circles.

Drake is a 31-year-old, former 1286th overall pick, with a career ERA of 4.59 who spent an unsuccessful stint in Toronto last season. As far as drumming up excitement goes, a late-blooming reliever with middle-of-the-road velocity isn’t going to do it.

However, if you’ve heard Drake’s name before you probably know there is something remarkable about him — or more specifically, the season he’s coming off. The right-hander set an MLB record by pitching for five different MLB teams and has continued to bounce around in the offseason. Here’s a list of every transaction he’s been a part of since the calendar turned to 2018.

May 5, 2018: Purchased by the Cleveland Indians from the Milwaukee Brewers.

May 31, 2018: Selected off waivers by the Los Angeles Angels from the Cleveland Indians.

July 26, 2018: Selected off waivers by the Toronto Blue Jays from the Los Angeles Angels.

August 3, 2018: Selected off waivers by the Minnesota Twins from the Toronto Blue Jays.

November 1, 2018: Selected off waivers by the Tampa Bay Rays from the Minnesota Twins.

November 26, 2018: Selected off waivers by the Toronto Blue Jays from the Tampa Bay Rays.

When you see a pattern like that the natural conclusion is that Drake must not be a good player. After all, he seems to spend a lot of time on waivers.

On the other hand, each and every time someone snaps him up. The fact of the matter is that MLB teams seem to want to employ him. There are tonnes of arms out there, but on six different occasions this year, a club decided he represented an upgrade on what they had in-house.

The natural question is why. Drake, on first glance, seems like the absolute definition of “just a guy”. It would be disingenuous to suggest he’s much more than that, but there’s also a reason so many teams have found him compelling enough to bring aboard.

Firstly, his numbers at the MLB level are surprisingly good for a guy who keeps finding himself on the scrap heap. Drake has logged 103.2 innings over the last two years and while his 4.95 ERA is not encouraging, it’s also not necessarily reflective of his talents.

During that span he’s conceded a .357 BABIP against, by far the highest among 111 relievers who’ve tossed at least 100 frames — the next-highest is Austin Pruitt’s .341 mark. That indicates some serious bad luck, especially because his exit velocity against numbers are average to above-average across the board.

Looking beyond his snake-bitten run prevention numbers, his peripherals have been rock-solid. Here’s how he compares to last year’s league-average reliever:

With the exception of his walk rate, he’s been significantly better than the average bullpen arm by fielding independent metrics over a decent sample. Teams keep picking him up hoping that’ll translate into goose eggs on the scoreboard. Last year, that didn’t work for Brewers, Indians, Angels or Blue Jays as he posted an ERA above five with each of them. He did find success with the Twins down the stretch as his ERA dropped to 2.21 ERA in 20.1 innings.

The second reason why Drake continues to intrigue is a little bit more subjective. It’s hard to claim that a guy who’s never been much of a prospect is dripping with “stuff”, but he does have one impressive pitch — which is often enough for a reliever.

With the exception of Hector Neris, no one throws splitters more often than Drake — who’s gone to that offering 45.1 percent of the time over the last two years. The pitch looks like this:

It’s a nasty pitch that has a way of making opponent’s look silly, and it’s a different look out of the bullpen where fastball-slider is by far the most common repertoire. Paired with an adequate 92.5 mph fastball, Drake has the tools to miss more than his share of bats — something he’s already done at the highest level.

Realistically, if Drake had star potential he wouldn’t be available so often. However, if he had no potential he wouldn’t always be getting picked up. It’s not hard to see the appeal of the right-hander as a sleeper pick up.

Considering they’ve claimed him twice in the last five months, it’s pretty clear the Blue Jays do.

 

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