A Pitcher’s Dizzying Movement: Five Teams in One Season

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MINNEAPOLIS — The most well-traveled player in Major League Baseball this season, Oliver Drake of the Minnesota Twins, learned something as he wound his way through a record five big-league clubs: The deeper you go into the season, the easier it is to travel light. There is no need for sweaters or heavy coats in August, no need to personalize a home you may have to vacate tomorrow.

“We got down to the bare minimum,” said Drake, referring to himself and his wife, Shannon.

A 31-year-old right-handed reliever, Drake was designated for assignment five times by four clubs since early May — Milwaukee, Cleveland, the Los Angeles Angels (twice) and then Toronto — before joining the Twins this month. The Drakes arrived with precisely enough to finish the season; he and Shannon shipped most of their possessions back home to Gardner, Mass., near Worcester, more than a month ago.

This time, they also decided against signing a lease. They are staying in a hotel, hoping to avoid yet another move.

“You just kind of get used to it,” he said.

Drake has found himself in the odd position of being expendable and desirable at the same time. A 43rd-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles who left the United States Naval Academy after two years to try pro ball, Drake lacks Aroldis Chapman-level velocity; his fastball averages about 92 miles an hour. But batters frequently chase his deceptive split-finger fastball, and analytics suggest his 6.15 E.R.A. through Sunday isn’t the truest measure of his ability.

In parts of four major-league seasons, Drake has averaged more than one strikeout per inning while compiling a 12.4 swinging-strike percentage — almost two points higher than this season’s major-league average. Batters have swung and missed 12.7 percent of his pitches this season through Sunday, better than Luis Severino of the Yankees (12.3) and slightly worse than Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer (13), though in significantly fewer innings. That intrigued analytic-minded executives at multiple clubs.

The problem is Drake hasn’t pitched well enough this season to keep a job. And because he is out of minor-league options, he must clear waivers to be sent to Class AAA. So clubs keep claiming him. When Drake took the mound for the Twins on Aug. 4, he broke the record of appearing for four clubs in one season shared by 14 players, according to Baseball Almanac. One was the former Met Dave Kingman, who in 1977 also suited up for the San Diego Padres, the California Angels and the Yankees.

“It’s not what he set out to do this year, certainly, break a record,” said Derek Falvey, the chief baseball officer for the Twins. “When I called him the other day when we got the claim, I told him: ‘It probably feels like a whirlwind for you, and you’ll continue that way. We’re hoping to keep you at the major-league level and keep you on track.’”

Drafted in 2008, Drake had spent his entire professional career in Baltimore’s system until last season. Shoulder surgery in 2012 and a switch from starting to relieving put him on a major-league track, and he made his debut for the Orioles in 2015.

But early last season the Orioles traded Drake to Milwaukee, where he made 61 appearances in 2017, going 3-5 with a 4.44 E.R.A. His splitter makes him effective against left-handers, whom he held to a .247 average.

Drake began this season with the Brewers but struggled with his command. Milwaukee designated him for assignment in early May to activate starter Wade Miley from the disabled list, and Cleveland acquired Drake for cash on May 5.

The Indians were on their way to a series in Milwaukee at the time, so Drake simply moved his gear from the home clubhouse at Miller Park to the visitors’ side. When Cleveland and Drake left town, Shannon stayed behind to clean out their apartment. “She’s a nurse,” Drake said. “This is her first year traveling with me, so she got a crash course in the life.”

In Cleveland, they arranged to sublet an apartment from pitcher Matt Belisle, who had been released by the Indians in early May, but they weren’t in it long. “We only spent one night there,” Drake said. “The day my wife and I signed to take it over, I got designated there.”

The Drakes went home to Massachusetts to wait out the seven-day period, during which a designated player must be traded or placed on waivers. The Angels claimed him on May 31, and Drake flew across the country to join them.

“We still had some stuff in Cleveland, so when I flew to Anaheim, my wife flew to Cleveland, packed up and finalized everything there,” Drake said. “One car got shipped home, one car got shipped to Anaheim. Then we were in a hotel in Anaheim.”

From there, his schedule went like this: On June 16, he cleared waivers after being designated for assignment by the Angels and headed to Class AAA Salt Lake City, where he and Shannon found a short-term rental on Airbnb. On July 6, Los Angeles purchased his contract and the Drakes moved back into an Anaheim hotel. On July 23, the Drakes returned to Salt Lake City to clear out their rental there. On July 26, Toronto claimed him and he flew to Chicago to meet the Blue Jays.

Four days later, after Drake gave up three runs in his first appearance and retired both batters he faced in his second, the Blue Jays became the fourth club since May to move to cut him loose. The Twins claimed him Aug. 3, making Drake and Belisle, his former sublessor, teammates.

“I think what each team has seen, and we’ve seen now, is a set of pitches with underlying metrics that indicate he can be a successful major-league reliever, maybe more so than his surface-level stats,” the Twins’ Falvey said. Falvey attributed Drake’s troubles this year to bad luck and all the moving around; his .390 average on batted balls in play is by far the highest of his career.

Twins Manager Paul Molitor, who played for three clubs in his 21-year Hall of Fame career but never switched teams during a season, said he felt sympathy for Drake.

“Between talking to him about it some, and reading his comments when he had a chance to set a record if you will, you understand what a toll it must take on a relationship, as well as trying to become acclimated to new teammates on a regular basis,” he said. “But if you hold on to your goal of being a major league pitcher, you probably, maybe not gladly, but take on those things that come with all those transitions if you still get a chance.”

For now, Drake just wants to stay in one place for awhile.

“We stay positive with it,” he said, praising his wife’s patience. “We move when we move, and we stay put when we stay put. We try to enjoy it and have fun. We’ve seen a lot of different cities, experienced a lot of different organizations, trying to make the most of it.”

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