Today we salute the ace of the most recent good Pirates teams, righthander Doug Drabek.
Doug Drabek threw a low 90s fastball, a hard slider, a slow curveball and his out pitch, a sinker. It was decent stuff, but Drabek's stuff belied his true talents. He had a fluid pitching motion, used the inside part of the plate, fielded his position well, was decent with the bat and held on runners. Nothing about him was superlative but he had no weakness. The Pirates rode Drabek's arm to three straight playoff appearances, and it is no coincidence that that streak stopped when he signed with another team.
The 1986 Pirates had been an awful group, a 64-98 last place team. None of the organization's young talent had really arrived, leaving a collection of average midcareer veterans not unlike the Dave Littlefield teams two decades later. Yet rather than take the approach of the current management group, GM Syd Thrift set out to aggressively improve his club by trading what few marketable assets he had.
Separate deals would bring in Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, and others, but the trade for Doug Drabek was no less important and no less successful. Remember, this was at the height of George Steinbrenner's impatience. The Pirates dangled 33-year-old starter Rick Rhoden, the staff's ace who was coming off a career year in 1986 - 15-12, 2.84. Pittsburgh threw in two middle relievers and was able to get Drabek, who was ten years younger than Rhoden and was coming off a solid major league debut season in which he went 7-8, 4.10. Also coming over was Brian Fisher, who would also be in Pittsburgh's rotation for two years. Not surprisingly, Rhoden had 30 wins left in his arm while Drabek would win another 148 games.
Through July 1987, the trade looked terrible - Drabek was 2-10 with a 4.55 ERA while Rhoden was 13-6 with a 3.44 for New York. But then came one of Drabek's patented stretch runs: he went 9-2 with a 3.06 ERA in the final two months to finish at 11-12, 3.88, an improvement over his rookie year. Drabek was hurt by the long ball but established himself that year as a control pitcher, allowing only 2.3 walks per nine innings.
1988 brought further improvement - 15-7, 3.08 - and by 1989's 14-12, 2.80 campaign, Drabek was an established top of the rotation starter. He had gone 10-2, 1.90, in the final 18 games of 1988, then was solid throughout 1989. The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia claims Drabek's 1989 was "disappointing." This is a shocking claim by a purported authority - he had allowed fewer hits, home runs, runs and earned runs per inning than in any previous season while throwing a career high (to that point) 244 innings and eight complete games. It was a good enough season that by 1990, Drabek had earned the ball on Opening Day as Jim Leyland's ace.
The 1990 season was a storybook year, as the Pirates went 95-67 - a shocking 21 game improvement over 1989. Drabek almost unanimously won the Cy Young Award for his campaign, getting 23 of 24 votes. He went 22-6 with a 2.76 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP. He threw one-hit shutout on a hot August day against a pretty good Phillies lineup, a game in which he had a no-hitter in that game with two outs in the ninth inning. But my pick for most impressive game was his pennant clincher in St. Louis on September 30. Drabek neatly dispatched the Cardinals in 80 pitches, allowing only three hits and zero walks in a shutout win. For the first time in 11 years the Pirates were returning to the playoffs.
Drabek next got the ball five days later for Game 2 of the NLCS. Already leading the series 1-0, the Pirates looked poised with their ace on the mound to take a commanding lead heading back to Pittsburgh. But the offense could only muster one run and Drabek lost a complete game decision, 2-1. The Pirates dropped Games 3 and 4 at Three Rivers Stadium and suddenly needed a win to stay alive. Drabek went 8.1 innings, allowing only one earned run, and got the win as the Bucs stayed alive, 3-2. But a 2-1 loss doomed the Pirates' fate. You win and lose as a team, but let's point out that Drabek posted a 1.65 ERA over 16.1 innings while Barry Bonds hit .167 in the series with one RBI.
Suffering from a lack of run support in 1991, Drabek went only 15-14 despite posting a 3.07 ERA in 35 starts for a division winning team. But he was still the team's ace and still got the ball in Game 1 of the playoffs, throwing six shutout innings to beat the Braves. With the Pirates leading 3-2 in games, Drabek took the mound again in Game 6 with the chance to clinch the pennant. The offense again failed Drabek, as he went the distance but lost 1-0. The Pirates lost in seven; Drabek had an 0.60 ERA in 15 innings; Bonds hit .148 with zero RBI.
Drabek posted his sixth straight solid season in 1992. He started his third straight Opening Day and went 15-11 with a 2.77 ERA, throwing a career high 257 innings. The Pirates won the division again and Drabek got the ball in Game 1 again. This time he pitched poorly and lost Game 1, then lost Game 4 in a mediocre performance. But his team helped him for once, and so he took the mound again in Game 7 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Drabek led 2-0 through eight innings. Jim Leyland had his Grady Little moment, leaving his ace in for three more batters and 129 total pitches, unspeakable things happened, and that was it for the '92 Pirates. Barry Bonds had two RBI in the series for a grand postseason total of three in three years.
And having won 95, 98, and 96 games over three seasons, Pirates management decided to blow the team up. Drabek, allowed to sign with the Astros, was just one player gone in a mass exodus of talent. Van Slyke hit the wall and the hometown nine were never the same.
None of the postseason failures, however, should diminish the fact that this was a great team. And for five years, 1988-92, Drabek was one of its great players. He went 92-62 with a 3.02 ERA in Pittsburgh and averaged 227 innings and 33 starts a year. Consistently displaying impeccable control, he allowed only a 1.15 WHIP and 2.2 walks per nine innings. And he turned things on in the postseason to the tune of a 2.05 ERA in seven starts, with only one home run allowed. For all that he is truly a great Pirate in history.