PORT CHARLOTTE — One of the lessons Rays pitcher Oliver Drake has learned over the past year is that comfort is a luxury while living on the fringe of a major league roster.
Since the beginning of the 2018 season, the right-hander has been in six different organizations, including two twice. He had been designated for assignment eight times over that stretch, claimed by new organizations six times and jettisoned to the minors after clearing waivers two other times.
Last season, Drake pitched for five different major league clubs — the Brewers, Indians, Angels, Blue Jays and Twins — which is a major-league record.
“One thing I’ve learned is to pack light,” Drake joked.
Rays manager Kevin Cash said this week he had some fun with Drake about how well-traveled he is.
“I told him, ‘Man, when you get to the Hall of Fame, you’re going to have a tough time picking what hat you’re going to wear,’” Cash said.
Drake takes his frequent travel in stride, but it’s not an easy life. The fact he pitched for so many teams shows he can help a major-league bullpen, but being the 25th man means you can be on your way somewhere else on a whim.
“I kind of learned to just roll with the punches, and I was real appreciative of the support system I have, from my friends, family, to my wife (Shannon),” Drake said. "They definitely made it easier.
“It seemed like every month I was on the move not knowing where I was going to be, so it’s easy for the mind to start to race and a lot of negative thoughts can creep in. So when you have a good support system, it kind of helps to stay positive and stay upbeat and ready for the next chapter.”
Drake, who turned 32 last month, is now trying to establish himself with the Rays. Tampa Bay actually held his rights twice this offseason. The Rays claimed him off waivers from the Twins in November, then lost him on waivers to the Blue Jays later that month. Tampa Bay reacquired him in January, slid him through waivers and outrighted him to Triple-A. He is in Rays camp as a non-roster invitee.
Throughout a season full of changing teams, Drake said he learned that to stick with what has gotten him to the big leagues — a fastball-splitter mix — instead of trying to re-invent himself at every new spot.
Drake’s four-seam, split-finger fastball mix is a good one. His low-90s fastball plays faster when combined with a splitter that has consistently averaged about 10 mph slower and has late depth. That combination has allowed Drake to keep hitters off balance and miss bats to the tune of a career 24.9-percent strikeout rate.
“He has shown the ability to miss bats,” Cash said. “He pitches a little backward in the fact that it’s heavy split, and pops in fastballs here and there. But it’s a pretty simple approach. Sitting behind him watching his bullpen (session), you see why people swing and they don’t hit it. They chase a lot of balls out of the zone. It looks like a fastball kind of coming middle to middle up, and it dives out of the zone.”
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In the beginning of last season, Drake incorporated a curveball that he worked on in the previous year in Milwaukee as a third pitch. While the early reviews were good, it took away some of the effectiveness of his bread-and-butter pitches. And in the situation Drake was in — where one or two bad outings can lead to your way out the door — he decided to shelve it.
“I started using a breaking ball at the beginning of the year to see if it could help, but at the same point, I don’t want to get away with what my strengths are and what makes me good by focusing so much time on a new pitch,” Drake said. “Last year, especially, kind of reminded me to stick to what got me here and what I do best. It was kind of a re-affirmation of, this is why you’re good. This is what you do.”
Once he joined the Twins in August, Drake had his most successful stretch of the season, posting a 2.21 ERA over 20-1/3 relief innings. He held opposing batters to a .164 batting average and posted scoreless outings in 15 of his 19 appearances. And his splitter induced a 21.6-percent whiff rate.
“I think more than anything with Oliver, it’s probably a little bit of consistency will do him some good,” said Cash, who sees Drake as a one-inning reliever. “He said he thought he figured some stuff about himself last year in Minnesota whenever that spell came about. We just want to be able to assist him and see how he can fit into our mix.”
For the first time in his career, Drake is opening a spring-training camp with a team he didn’t spend the previous season with. He is starting as a minor leaguer, so the Rays don’t have to keep him on the major-league roster to open the season. While that might mean opening the season at Triple-A Durham, it also means he could be in the Rays organization longer than any of the five he spent time with in 2018.
“I’m just trying to go out there and try to show what I’ve got and stick to who I am as a pitcher and hopefully that’s enough,” Drake said. "It’s still the same thing. Different location and different team. This is new for me because I’m showing up not really knowing anyone, really. So there’s a lot of new names and faces, but when it gets down to it, it’s about putting on a jersey and going on the baseball field and you go from there.
"Last year, I got a lot of practice having to learn names and faces pretty quickly," Drake deadpanned. "So it shouldn't be too hard."
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInThaYard.