We’ve thought of switching to solar power many times. Help the environment. Save the planet. But that steep initial investment to purchase the solar panels is discouraging.
Sunrun is proposing an interesting model that may be a solution for those turned off by high upfront costs. Instead of selling you the panel, Sunrun will buy it and install it on your house. You would pay them a lower rate for the electricity those panels provide. This way, you lower your energy bill without a major investment.
I like their clever ad-campaign. Rather than focus on the environmental benefits of solar energy, as we are so accustomed to hear, the ads push one message: solar power makes financial sense. Watch the videos below.
Readers will be familiar with our fondness for Band of Skulls. But allow us a short refresher.
This is a band of two men and one woman. Their rock and roll is leather jackets and dark wash denim, heavy breathing and hushed lullabies. Contrasts and symmetries. Smart. But, more than that, savvy. You wonder how they got to be wise beyond their years. They belong in your car. But they are also a band worth getting out and seeing. This is a rock band for our time.
They hail from Southampton, England – the town the Titanic set sail from. They share with her a similar ambition. After releasing the excellent Baby Darling Doll Face Honey in 2009, they returned in February with Sweet Sour, their second album. We recommend it.
We also advise you to schedule date night the next time they come through your town. You’ll both go home happy. We recently caught up with Russell Marsden (vocals, guitar) and Emma Richardson (vocals, bass) before their show at the Phoenix in Toronto to talk about the finer details of collaboration, German surrealism and Belgian gnomes.
I want to start with a memory from the first time I saw you guys, at Bonnaroo, last summer. I understand that show left a lasting impression on you. There was something about it that you wanted to try and capture again. Maybe you could tell me what was so memorable about it.
Emma: Well, we’d been in the studio for a few weeks by then. Recording. And we got the chance to go out and play the festival. And we really didn’t expect how big the stage [would be] and the time slot we got. So we thought, ‘Oh, let’s put four or five new ones in the set and see how they go down.’ I remember walking out on stage and seeing 15 or 20,000 people getting it and singing along. It was kind of the most overwhelming experience. Especially coming out of the studio and not talking to anybody for a month. Just – some of the things that happened on stage – not mistakes, but technical… extras.
Russell: Technical details. Matt [Hayward, drums] got a real vibe off of what was happening. I think a lot of people did. They were just going crazy. From the first hits. We opened with “Sweet Sour,” like we’ve been doing since. So it was defining it that sense as well. He was hitting the drums so hard that the stage was moving up and down, which was moving the amps, which was making the reverb tanks slap the insides of themselves and gives you that kind of lightning sound. We brought it home and watched it on video and thought, ‘Well, that’s cool.’ So we got back to Rockfield (Wales) and basically showed the videos to our producer and said, ‘We want the record to sound like this gig.’ He ended up jumping up and down on my far-too-overpriced and delicate amplifiers. That really was the connection. We’re back in Wales… and that’s on the album. It was one of those absurd details that became reality.
Emma: And that sound opens the album.
That’s brilliant when one of those little details ends up colouring an album.
Emma: It’s good for us for the memories.
Russell: Yeah, it’s a good trigger for those.
I can imagine. Sweet Sour, obviously, can apply to many things. One of the first that spoke to me was a focus on contrasts. I guess it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise coming from a band that’s touched on Patsy Cline and Led Zeppelin.
Russell: (Laughs). It’s true! There you go!
I’m curious – when you first come together, at the beginning of the writing process, are those contrasts, particularly apparent? Or is it easy to see what’s common?
Emma: It’s strange because sometimes Matt could come up with the most beautiful guitar riff – on a guitar - that he wants to show us. Or I’ll come up with a big, heavy bass lick.
Russell: Or the opposite.
Emma: Everyone works on everything. So it’s a real combination of everyone coming together. And a good idea wins.
Emma: Everyone agrees on certain classic bands but, at the end of the day, if you have a good idea and everyone likes it, everyone agrees to work on it. That might become a song.
Russell: If it’s a Patsy Cline-esque melody with a Led Zeppelin-esque whatever, we’re like ‘Throw that shit together!’
Russell: That’s something that would make our ears perk up. Even if the bits to an idea seem weird, we want to see what happens. We have a very broad range of tastes – musical tastes, listening tastes – and also we have a broad range of stuff that we want to do, I think. So it always favours the work. And this record is no exception, really. I think we continue to try to bring many different influences in. Sometimes it’s risky doing it. But I think if we weren’t fulfilling ourselves artistically, we’d be disappointed in the work. We’d be feeling repressed. Which we’re not.
When you take the album as a cohesive set – which, of course, people increasingly don’t do these days, though they ought to – I find it interesting that rather than a study in contrasts it feels it many ways like you guys have refined a lot of the elements you brought together on the first album; a distillation. Does it sound that way to you when you play the songs?
Russell: We don’t listen to it! We only play them.
Emma: We only play them live.
Russell: Listen to them to learn them, if you have to play them. (Laughs). I think for us it was making sure that everyone knew we were a real band. It wasn’t just a ‘flash in the pan’ thing. We’re a band on a journey writing music. We wanted it to open doors for us into the future rather than close them and reduce our options. So there are some interesting things that we did. There are interesting time signatures. We kind of got quite experimental, I think.
That’s true of the time signatures you hear in “Wanderluster.” It’s an interesting jump to hear. Very cool.
Russell: We could’ve easily not done a song like that. Played it safe. But I like the risk. It’s exciting.
Emma: I like being able to, too. I like how sometimes we write things that we can’t physically play. We have to re-learn them and get to become better musicians to actually play the song. With “Wanderluster,” that was an example of everyone trying to figure out this crazy time signature that Matt had and then putting our own ideas onto it. It’s exciting, you know. You can kind of see what it might become. And that’s the point where everybody goes, ‘Wow, we should really work on this some more.’
Russell: Yeah! It was good. We sort of write the idea. Not as a ‘Band of Skulls’ thing. But then it has to go through these channels to be possible to do.
Emma: Three people. Three instruments. And two vocals. It has to fit into that mold.
Russell: It was very interesting to do. And very satisfying to finish and get on the record. I’m glad it made it. It gives the record some edge.
Absolutely. Emma, your artwork certainly forms the aesthetic of the band. I want to congratulate you on the opening of your first solo exhibition, Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’, back in England…
Emma: Thank you.
But, Russell, I think you’ll have something to say to this as well. Do you think that there are common themes within the artwork and the music?
Emma: It’s quite a similar process for sure. I think that the process of actually creating a painting and a song is very similar. As in definite influences you could talk about…it’s a psychological thing. They’re all Rorschach tests. People bring different things to the paintings. A song, you could say the same thing. They could bring something emotionally to it.
Russell: They make their own thing of it.
Emma: Yeah. There is a definite crossover with the artwork and the music. It’s nice to have that continuity running through both records, I think.
For me – just to project myself onto it a touch – I feel that there’s a certain symmetry to both. But, at the same time, a certain fluidity. Something raw as well. Carnal, almost. Like an animalism.
Russell: It’s nice. The two sets of work remind me of the time we made the work. Which is what I see. It’s also great that everything we do creatively is from within the band. Musically and artistically. There’s no outside. We had some help to realize our ideas. But it’s always our ideas. And the fact that Emma’s work is beautiful and sort of hardcore at the same time is a great match for the band. I think this album cover – this is the first time we’ve ever seen it on a billboard and that kind of stuff – and it’s like, ‘Well, that looks pretty sick!’ And it does! It’s not just a picture that’s got us on it. Or whatever. Something really tired and done. And I think that it’s a really recognizable look. We hope that if anyone was waiting for the record to come out and they went into the store, or they went online or whatever, and that was the first time they saw the image, they’d go, ‘Oh, that’s the new Band of Skulls record.’ It’s a very complex and beautiful branding. But it’s us. It’s how we feel. It completely sums up how we feel the music would look if you could see it.
Well said. I was doing some reading and I came across an article where you mentioned, Emma, the German artist Hans Bellmer as a touchstone, a reference point. What is it about his artwork that you’re drawn to?
Emma: First off, his draftsmanship. The line he uses. For “The Story of the Eye” it’s amazing. It blows me away, his skills. And also that real visceral, slightly explicit, kind of raw… it’s evil, you know? (Laughs). Some of the images… he’s quite twisted. And he made that Dollthing which is so messed up.
It’s a touch vulgar.
Emma: Yeah. But he’s not afraid to go there. I kind of like his brash openness. That he’s able just to draw stuff like that and he makes it look so beautiful at the same time. I find myself kind of influenced by it. But also censoring myself with paint quite a bit. I do start with that kind of visceral, vicious line and then end up covering it up with oil paint and being a little coy. Revealing parts. He’s had a big influence on my work, for sure.
The two of you, if I’m not mistaken, actually met when you were in art school together.
Is that right?
Emma: Pretty much, yeah.
Considering what you do now, what would you say is the thing school most taught you?
Russell: They’ll probably be different! You go first.
Emma: (Laughs). It had a massive effect on my social life, first off. Also it teaches you to try out a lot of different ideas. Especially artistically when there are three of you. You figure out what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. And just not being afraid to try different things out and experiment.
Russell: Yeah, I think that everyone has a personal experience but we meet in the centre when there’s an experimental and creative mood. It’s great to be around people that are doing so many things. At the time, [school] was very exciting. We try and retain that sense of creative processes. Any idea’s good enough because it’s an idea. That’s a powerful thing. We sort of do have an art-school way of working. We sit down, we throw ideas around. We have development days. I guess that’s what we learned from it, really. How to see through a creative project. And how to collaborate.
Emma: How to move forward and how to talk about it and actually realize where it ends.
Russell: Hopefully we learned to be a creative team in any sense. That’s what we try and do. It’s very strange that the front end of it is this rock band.
Russell: We sort of look at it sometimes, like, ‘What the hell happened there?’ But we’ve always collaborated and it’s always exciting. Right now, it’s music. It’s raw, powerful music that’s exciting people. It is exciting. And in the future there’s lot of other things we want to do and it’ll be exciting where it takes us.
From a Canadian perspective, it’s exciting some of the collaborations you’ve done with the [PHI] collective out of Montreal. It’s a very cool way of making art a business.
Russell: It makes it more interesting for us. The fact that we work with people in America and back in England as well. We’ve spent a lot of time in Canada, and Montreal especially, and it keeps that slightly unusual way of doing things alive. That’s not the usual route. Which is always, for good or worse, the way we do things. We do things the other way of doing it.
Emma: It keeps options open. It leaves you free to experiment. And maybe we wouldn’t get that if we were signed up to a major [label]. It might not happen in the same way. We’re grateful for having it.
Russell: We’re very fortunate. And we’re hopeful of protecting that creative bubble that we have now. It works for us.
What do you think being in a band has taught you about yourselves?
Emma: I think to grab hold of any opportunity that comes and to take hold of it, and not be scared of it, and see what happens. I think everyone’s grown in confidence as players. I know I have. Just being able to travel so much and see the world. I know it gets repeated and a lot of bands say it but you do get to experience a hell of a lot of the world. You meet a lot of people.
Russell: That’s the biggest thing.
Emma: It kind of puts your life into context. There’s a lot of other things going on. It’s not just all about music. For me, that’s it. And seeing a lot of people rock out every night. (Laughs).
Russell: Yeah. It’s great to bring something exciting into town. And hopefully make people’s week a bit better, you know? Tough times often need a bit of relaxation. A bit of escapism. Rock and roll’s always done that. So, if that’s the case, then we’re very happy to supply it. And also we’ve been a band for a long time. But we’ve been musicians for longer. We’ve come across many barriers and people have written us off left, right and centre. It’s a very English thing. There’s a lot of history there and it’s super tough to break through. Anyone that’s sort of said that we were shit… it’s sort of satisfying when you make it to a certain level.
Emma: “You’ll never make it…”
Russell: I would never say that to anyone. But they used to say that to us. It’s satisfying when it’s the same songs, the same band, with a bit of hard work. We had an opportunity to share our work. The rest of it’s the same. Once you’ve come around and you have a good show or a good audience, or whatever, even if one person’s a big fan, it’s worth it. All summed up in one moment. Crystallized.
Well said. A couple of quick departures then. In your opinion, what’s one beer that no one should ever underestimate?
Russell: Can we go Belgian on this?
You don’t have to be united.
Emma: I’d say Erdinger.
Emma: It’s taken me by surprise many times!
Russell: We’re quite partial, when we’re in Europe, especially when we’re in Belgium, to the Belgian beers. And there’s this one. It’s called La Chouffe. It has this little guy on the front. This little cartoon.
Emma: Yes, that one!
Russell: He’s like a little smurf or whatever, right? And that beer is strong. We drank it in Japan once. I think for the Japanese that might be like the mother load. It’s in a glass box. We had four and that was their entire stock. They were very impressed that we could hold our booze. But we’re British. So, there you go. La Chouffe. He’s not a smurf. He’s a…
Emma: He’s a gnome.
Russell: He’s a gnome! And they make him very friendly, like a kid’s thing.
Emma: Sort of lulls you into a false sense of security.
One more thing. About a week ago, my hair was almost as long as yours…
Russell: It’s early in the year, man. You must be feeling fresh.
Well, last week it was about 20 degrees warmer here than it is now. Who in the band uses the best shampoo? And the most of it?
Russell: (pauses) Emma.
Emma: It could be me. I know it’s a cop-out because I’m the girl in the band. But everyone’s got long locks, it’s true.
Russell: It’s one of those things, isn’t it? We’re all turning into each other. Apart from the beards.
Emma: But when it comes to shampoo you take what you get. We’re on a bus at the moment so [it’s] whatever you’re given in the day room. A bottle of who-knows-what.
Russell: We’re pretty clean. We’re a pretty clean band.
Absolutely. I can tell.
Russell: We do have a lady with us on the road. If it was a bunch of boys…
Emma: I dread to think.
Russell: The standard of acceptability could be a lot lower.
Russell: All the bros could easily be like, ‘Yeah…whatever.’
Emma: It gives you something to keep up for.
Russell: You do! All of us are like, ‘Well, we’d better not stink.’ Even the crew! It’s a sweet-smelling bus.
I was close enough last time, at The Garrison. I thought, “My God, for how long their hair is,
it looks way too good.’
Emma (Laughs). That’s grand.
Russell: We probably had a hotel that night.
Emma: We’d washed that day.
Russell: We were at the Metropolitan rocking out with the pilots. Nice one.
You know we love Band of Skulls. We’ve told you all about that before.
A few weeks ago, we co-ordinated a 5 Questions interview with bassist and singer Emma Richardson. Aces, right? When we arrived at the meet, guitarist and singer Russell Marsden was around, too. Even better. So we spoke to them both. They were thoughtful. Fun. Fresh. Perfect, really. Hard to imagine a dilemma.
True. But the chat was planned as a 5 Questions. You know the format. One-on-one.
Five up, five down. So how to play it without breaking our own rules? Here’s how:
Tomorrow, we’ll post the full interview with Russell and Emma. We hope you enjoy it.
Then next week we’ll have two 5 Questions segments. Emma’s. Then Russell’s. A few edits were needed to make it all work. We think it will be interesting to see their thoughts in shared conversation, then on their own and, hell, maybe even as an exercise in editing. Stay tuned. Part one will be here with the light of the morning. Baby.
Bob Dylan knows a little about becoming indispensable, being an artist, and living on the edge:
“Daltrey, Townshend, McCartney, the Beach Boys, Elton, Billy Joel. They made perfect records, so they have to play them perfectly … exactly the way people remember them. My records were never perfect. So there is no point in trying to duplicate them. Anyway, I’m no mainstream artist.
“… I guess most of my influences could be thought of as eccentric. Mass media had no overwhleming reach so I was drawn to the traveling performers passing through. The side show performers – bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the roller-coaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it …”
The interviewer then reminded Dylan, “But you’ve sold over a hundred million records.”
Dylan’s answer gets to the heart of what it means to be an artist: “Yeah I know. It’s a mystery to me too.”
In homage to Charles Dickens on his 200th birthday, publishing house GraphicDesign& brought together 70 designers and typographers to reinterpret the first page of the novel Great Expectations. The experiment was ‘designed to explore the relationship between graphic design, typography and the reading of a page’. The results are quite interesting. Purchase information can be found on their website.
Kyle Drabek pitched his way back into the Blue Jays’ starting rotation plans. How he fares making adjustments at the major league level will determine how long he’ll stay. (REUTERS/Mike Cassese)
Kyle Drabek is off to a solid start in his sophomore season but remains very much a work in progress. He’s matured a great deal during his time with Toronto and, incredibly, ranks third in experience among current Blue Jays starters. His natural talent rates with the best arms in the organization. What Drabek still lacks is consistency. Let’s look at how the work Drabek’s put in this year matches up with his prospect history to see if he can achieve his full potential.
The Philadelphia Phillies drafted Kyle Drabek in the 1st round, 18th overall, of the 2006 amateur draft out of The Woodlands High School in the greater Houston area. He was teammates with Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Drabek was incredibly athletic and, in addition to pitching, considered a highly regarded shortstop prospect, batting .443 and going 12-0 with a 1.18 ERA his senior year. He also caught over 1,000 yards and ran a 4.5 40-yard dash as a wide receiver as a junior. He is the son of former Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek.
Kyle was one of the most obvious talents in the 2006 draft. But questions about his character caused his stock to fall. He was arrested for public intoxication as a 17=year old – Drabek denied guilt and charges were later dropped – and, later that year, crashed an SUV into a tree. When he slipped into the bottom half of the first round, the Phillies grabbed him, ecstatic to grab a consensus Top-10 talent so late in the first round. He was already capable of touching 97 mph on the radar gun and featured a plus curveball. Drabek signed quickly and started his career that summer with the Gulf Coast League Phillies.
It was a terrible beginning. Drabek made 6 starts and went 1-3, 7.71, with 33 hits allowed in 23.1 innings and a 14/11 SO/BB rate. He was extremely hittable (12.7 H/9) and there were questions about his maturity on the mound. When he got in trouble things seemed to snowball out of control. Of course, Drabek was 18 years old. He’d have plenty of chances. Interestingly, the team also started him at DH three times – a further testament to his athleticism.
In 2007, he started the season with the low-A Lakewood Blue Claws and fared much better. He made 10 starts, pitching to a 5-1, 4.33 line with a 46/23 SO/BB rate and a dramatically improved 8.3 H/9 in 54 innings. But Drabek blew out his right elbow that June and required Tommy John surgery a month later. Even with the modern success rate for the operation somewhere around 95%, it was a huge blow for his development and promised to keep Drabek off a mound for a year. Just as he was now showing signs of high quality stuff, improved makeup and, for the first time, earning praise for his preparation. It was a tough break for a teenager. Drabek was still just 19.
He spent much of 2008 regaining his arm strength and confidence before getting back on the mound for a late-season rehab assignment with the GCL Phillies. Just getting into games was a victory. Many observers felt he might miss the entire season. Better yet, Drabek looked almost like his old self. In August, the Phillies promoted him to the low-A Williamsport Crosscutters and he made 4 starts there, going 1-2, 2.21 in 20.1 innings with a 10/6 SO/BB rate and an extraordinary 4.9 H/IP. He was still regaining his best stuff. But Drabek now seemed poised to resume his career as one of the Phillies’ top pitching prospects. It was easy to be optimistic about his chances but he’d yet to put together a full season of positive results without injury and there were no guarantees about his future.
Entering 2009, Philadelphia considered Drabek advanced enough to jump to the high-A Clearwater Threshers. He proved up to the task. In 10 starts, Drabek went 4-1, 2.48, 61.2 IP and a dominating 74/19 SO/BB ratio. His tenth start was a complete game shutout that convinced the Phillies brain trust he was ready for AA. Drabek adapted quickly there, too, pitching 15 games for the Reading Phillies and going 8-2, 3.64 with a 76/31 SO/BB in 96.1 innings. It was a breakthrough season. Drabek earned his way into the Futures Game, dialing his velocity up to 96 mph for the occasion (though he still sat regularly between 92-94), and was named the Phillies’ minor league Pitcher of the Year. Significantly, he tweaked his mechanics to eliminate a hip turn in his follow through, keeping him on a straighter plane toward home plate. The adjustment paid off. Drabek was consistently hitting his spots, demonstrating increased maturity and now looked like a future top of the rotation starter. He’d responded to concerns about his durabiility by throwing 150+ innings and, though most observers felt his changeup and cutter could benefit from time at AAA, Drabek looked like he might be major league-ready within the year.
But the Phillies had just lost the World Series in six games to the New York Yankees and had designs on getting back to baseball’s biggest stage. Now. In December, they landed the one man in baseball most everyone believed could them there: Roy Halladay. The Phillies traded Drabek, Travis d’Arnaud and Michael Taylor to Toronto in the deal with Drabek immediately becoming the Blue Jays top prospect. But even the most optimistic and far-sighted Jays fans knew this was a win for Philadelphia. Halladay was the franchise. All they could hope was that, one day, Drabek could take his place atop the team’s rotation.
Toronto was rebuilding and refused to rush Drabek straight to the majors. They also wanted to protect him from the harsh hitting environment in AAA Las Vegas and instead assigned him to the AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Drabek was already proven at the level but remained consistent. 27 starts, 14-9, 2.94 in 162 innings with a 132/68 SO/BB ratio. He was tough to square up (.213 BAA, 7H/9) but lost some of his command. That said, he was still good enough to be named the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year, pace the circuit in wins and finish 3rd in ERA, IP and SO while making the league’s mid-and-post-season All-Star teams. The highlight of his season came on July 4, against the New Britain Rock Cats, as he pitched a 98-pitch no-hitter – becoming the first Fisher Cat ever to accomplish the feat.
In September, the Blue Jays promoted him to the show and he made his debut in Baltimore. Drabek received three starts in total, going 0-3, 4.76 with a 12/5 SO/BB rate in 17 innings. He hadn’t set the league on fire. But he didn’t look out of place, either, and seemed to have little left to accomplish in the minors. Heading into 2011, Drabek looked ready to join the Blue Jays rotation with a good spring.
Drabek did more than that. He impressed in spring training, particularly with his flashy command (14/1 K/BB). With spring injuries to Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil decimating the Blue Jays’ rotation, Drabek started the second game of the season and earned his first major league victory. He looked great. But as the calendar turned to May, Drabek fought his control with increasing futility, maxing out pitch counts early and limiting his effectiveness. During one meltdown against Cleveland he couldn’t make it out of the first inning. In 14 total starts, he pitched to a 4-5, 5.70 line, eventually pitching his way out of the rotation. Unfortunately, borderline calls and home runs had a way of getting under Drabek’s skin. He often became visibly frustrated and appeared to lack the poise of a regular starter. The Jays sent him to the Las Vegas 5s to work on his command and composure. Without question, he found the Cashman Field bandbox humbling. Drabek made 15 starts there, going 5-4 in 75 innings – but with a dreadful 7.44 ERA, 111 hits and an ugly 45/41 SO/BB ratio. He was a mess, surrendering 13.3H/9 and a brutal 2.03 WHIP. Splits were irrelevant. Everyone hit him. To his credit, Drabek kept battling. But it appeared his confidence was shot. Mercifully, Toronto recalled him in September but used him only as a long man in low-leverage situations. In addition to the maturity issues, Drabek had slipped into bad mechanical habits. He was now falling off the mound and deviating from the straightforward approach that had brought him success. He also struggled to locate his out pitch, a plunging spike curveball. The pitch typically finished out of the strike zone and after AL hitters got a look or two at, they learned to lay off, discovering it would routinely result in a ball. Drabek had no answer for this. The result was an abominable amount of walks (6.3BB/9) and a lot of hard lessons. Drabek was still in the Blue Jays’ plans. But he had a lot of work to do before Toronto would gift him another rotation slot. He entered 2012 on the outside of the rotation battle looking in.
Drabek capitalized on an opportunity to break camp with the team again this year and, so far, has mostly run with it. He’s less demonstrative and now seems to be in control of his emotions on the mound. Thanks to an unconventional bullpen regimen, he’s also had more success holding his pitching lane. In his first 6 starts, Drabek has only once allowed more than 2 runs. But, still, there are warning signs. He battles his control more than he commands it. Some nights, his struggles locating his four-seam fastball can result in the loss of the pitch altogether. Despite his tidy 3.34 ERA, his FIP currently sits at 5.29 – not far off last year’s abysmal 5.52. That’s a concern. Even if his xFIP is 4.23. He’s also been lucky. His BABIP is just .263. His strikeouts are up (7.2/9 from 5.83/9) and so are his ground balls (53.5% from 44.7%). But his walks (5.14/9) are still way too high. This will eventually catch up to Kyle.
I think he’ll turn a corner eventually. But I’m not sure it will be this season. I expect some gains but also periods of inconsistency and frustration. It is best that Drabek continues to work on his command at the major league level. It may be that all he needs are innings. I’m not sure he’ll ever live up to his pre-draft or prospect hype. But he can surely still enjoy a long career if he gets the walks under control. He reminds me of Brad Penny, a capable innings eater, prone to lapses in command, who sprinkled in a couple of All-Star seasons on the way to a successful career. John Lackey is another comparable who comes to mind. He could also be another Homer Bailey. Ultimately, it will come down to health and whether Drabek can harness his impressive stuff. It’s important to remember that he’s still only 24. You can bet he’ll get plenty of chances.
Kyle Drabek, SP
12/08/87 Bats: R Throws: R HT: 6-1 WT: 230
Victoria, Texas High School: The Woodlands (Woodlands, TX)
Drafted by Philadelphia in the 1st round, 18th overall, of the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft.
Acquired: Traded to Toronto on December 16, 2009
Contract Status: Eligible for arbitration in 2015.
Service Time: 0.119
Edward Norton searches for signs of intelligence in The Incredible Hulk.
The Incredible Hulk
You have a classic character. An audience suffering superhero fatigue. And the fresh memory of the perceived movie misfire you’re out to avenge. Making a winning Hulk film was no easy proposition in 2008.
“The Incredible Hulk” is not the film to do it. It’s arrival, from the hurried title sequence, feels uninspired. Motivated more by studio interests than storytelling, love for its protagonist or, at times, even entertainment. True, Ang Lee’s 2003 take on Hulk, wasn’t received with much warmth by audiences or critics. I felt it showed thought, care and surprising depth for a previously simple character opposed by single-minded forces. That it was presented with a unique, and fairly innovative, visual flair only heightened my enjoyment. Many others disagreed. Hulk’s franchise prospects seemed dim.
Thus beget “The Incredible Hulk” with Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner. In this telling, Banner has already been exposed to gamma radiation; already lived to see the consequences of what it does to him – and those around him.
Incredibly (ahem), it starts promisingly enough. Banner is in hiding in Brazil. He works at a factory. Keeps himself in shape. Studies relaxation techniques and pursues holistic remedies for his condition. He wears a heart monitor on his wrist. He is careful.
Norton may seem an odd fit as Hulk but he is effective as Banner. Both are intelligent and daring. Norton also shows us a new side of the character – we witness the exhaustion and intense physical suffering Banner endures after reverting out of the Hulk form. It works.
But this is not a film much interested in intelligence or forging new paths, particularly if they detour from the next action sequence. Attribute this to French director Louis Leterrier, he of the Transporter films. He’s all punch-ups and shootouts. And now his fighters aren’t bound by human limitations of strength or endurance.
Leterrier pushes to show us his Hulk as early as possible. One of the criticisms of Lee’s movie was that it kept audiences waiting for the big guy to show up. Here, it’s done fast – and more or less effectively – once General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and his hired gun Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) receive intel on Banner’s whereabouts. They find him. Fight him. He gets away. Predictably, this happens several more times in the film.
Blonsky is the consummate soldier. Decorated and endlessly determined. He sees the transformation Banner undergoes and sees new potential in himself. Ross can help make it a reality. Roth and Hurt are solid but have little to work with. Liv Tyler also shows up as Banner’s former colleague and flame, Dr. Betty Ross. But the character’s presence is barely necessary. And Tyler seems lost. Her feeble attempts at light comedy fall flat. Worse, she and Norton share no chemistry. Her most dramatic moments involve whispering “Bruce…” breathily to a nine-foot giant. The character’s a waste.
There are a few neat tricks. The green saturation. Roth sprinting 40 MPH and outrunning his entire squadron. Norton wisely deciding against riding the New York (or is it Toronto?) subway. Tim Blake Nelson turning up as a uniquely mad scientist in the third act.
But mostly it’s a whole lot of smashing stuff. The effective Marvel films imbue their characters with wit and charm. Villains hatching clever plans. Some magic. These are not outrageous expectations. But Leterrier plays “The Incredible Hulk” with one note. It’s safe and repetitive. After an hour of watching CGI street fights, we feel like Banner after a night of Hulking. Given the talents of Norton and Roth, wouldn’t you rather watch them duel with cunning and style than as cartoons (however impressive) that pound each other to dust?
“The Incredible Hulk” hinges on its main character’s ability to transform into something extraordinary when his heart rate accelerates. To make a film that drains the life out of this superhero’s oversized soul is fatal.
Edward Norton – Dr. Bruce Banner
William Hurt – Gen. Thaddeus Ross
Tim Roth – Emil Blonsky
Liv Tyler – Dr. Betty Ross
Tim Blake Nelson – Dr. Samuel Sterns
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Written by Zak Penn and Edward Norton (uncredited)
Running Time: 112 Minutes.
Rajai Davis has speed to burn on the Blue Jays bench this season. (J. Meric/Getty)
Rajai Davis returns for his second year with the Blue Jays in a new role as a reserve outfielder and pinch runner. Davis can be one of the most exciting players to watch in any game. But hitting limitations continue to hold him back. Interestingly, Davis hit well in his minor league career. Let’s look at his case to see what’s happened since – and whether there may still be more to his game than speed.
The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Rajai Davis in the 38th round, 1134th overall, of the 2001 amateur draft out of the University of Connecticut. At the time, he was an extremely athletic switch-hitting (!) second baseman (!!) but Pittsburgh profiled him as a centre fielder due to his great range and plus speed. It was a tough draft for the Pirates. They chose injury bust John Van Benschoten 8th overall and also selected Jeremy Guthrie and Stephen Drew but couldn’t convince either to sign. Davis, however, signed quickly and got started with the short-season Williamsport Crosscutters before a reassignment to the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Pirates. He played in 32 games, hitting .240/.345/.250 with just one double and a problematic 30/15 SO/BB ratio. The walks looked good, but the whiffs were untenable and Davis showed zero power. He stole 11 bases in 15 tries. But speed was the only interesting part of his game.
Davis returned to the GCL in 2002 and ripped: .384/.436/.554 with 16 doubles, 5 triples, 4 home runs, an excellent 25/20 SO/BB line and 24 steals in 58 games. He was named the GCL’s Player of the Year and Pittsburgh granted him a late promotion to the South Atlantic League champion Hickory Crawdads. On the surface, the numbers looked great. He’d reached base in 61 of his 65 total games. But, at 21, Davis was old for these levels, and doing most of his damage against teenage competition. Still, he’d put himself on the organizational map and now had a shot at becoming more than low-level roster filler.
In 2003, Davis spent the whole season with Hickory and excelled. In 125 games, he hit .303/.383/.416 with 21 doubles, 7 triples and 6 HRs, a very strong 65/55 SO/BB and 40 steals in 53 tries. The extra-base hits were easily a career high and he led the Crawdads in several offensive categories. He also had an impressive 15 outfield assists – an indication that his great range surprised many baserunners – but also made 7 errors. He still wasn’t turning many heads. But it was a second straight campaign of good results. In the offseason, Davis decided to stop switch-hitting and dedicate himself to hitting right-handed going forward.
Unless you spent 2004 watching a lot of Lynchburg Hillcats games, you’d have been hard-pressed to notice. Pittsburgh promoted Davis to its high-A affiliate and he rewarded them with a virtual replica of his previous season: 127 games, .314/.388/.424 with 27 doubles, 7 triples, 5 HRs, and a terrific 60/59 SO/BB rate. He won the Carolina League batting title, made it All-Star team, and led the circuit in runs, hits and steals. It was quite incredible considering he’d done the whole thing right-handed. Better yet, his steals spiked as Davis nabbed 57 bases against just 15 times caught. He showed no obvious platoon split (hitting .325 vs. LHP, .312 vs. RHP) and finally attracted real interest as a burner prospect and potential major league leadoff man. He made 8 errors but clearly had all the tools to handle centre field. Pittsburgh added him to its 40-man roster in the offseason but he was still behind Nate McLouth and Chris Duffy on the Pirates’ prospect chart and was only now entering AA at 24.
Davis arrived in AA in 2005, playing 123 games with the Altoona Curve. His slash line dipped slightly (.281/.351/.369) but he produced similar counting stats (22 2B, 4 3B, 4 HR) and was again named a league All-Star. Unfortunately, his SO/BB rate declined to 76/43 against tougher competition. Playable, certainly, but worth monitoring. He also saw his contact, walk and slugging rates slip, costing him almost 100 points of OPS. But he continued to improve his base stealing, taking 45 of 54 attempts – an excellent 83% theft rate – and leading the league in steals. He might have been even more prolific but Davis was hit by a pitch and fractured his right hand in August, ending his season early and potentially costing him a late call-up. Hes again contributed 10 outfield assists but, curiously, also made 10 errors. Most were the result of bad reads on fly balls that he couldn’t rescue despite his speed. Davis appeared to be a useful pest but not a true leadoff threat. He could handle centre and provide a spark. But it looked like advanced pitchers would knock the bat out of his hands if his approach didn’t improve. He got healthy in time to play winter ball with Guasave in the Mexican winter league. Pittsburgh had been very methodical with Davis. But he was now on the verge of the majors and looked ready to help in the right role.
In 2006, the Pirates assigned Davis to the AAA Indianapolis Indians. He started slowly but ultimately hit .283/.335/.348 in 100 games with a stagnating 59/27 SO/BB ratio. He showed minimal power and had to overcome a fractured right middle finger but stole 45 bases, seemingly determined to swipe his way to the show. When McLouth sprained his ankle in August, Davis finally got his call-up after six years in the minors. But the Pirates buried him on their bench, never letting him start a game, mostly using him as a pinch-runner. He received just 17 plate appearances and was caught stealing 3 times in 4 tries. Teams were ready for his wheels. Pittsburgh was unsettled in centre entering the offseason. Both McLouth and Duffy had disappointed in their trials. And Duffy was reportedlyclashing with manager Jim Tracy. Some guy named Jose Bautista even played 57 games in the midfield in 2006. Entering 2007, it looked like Davis might have a chance to make the team with a good spring.
He didn’t make the opening day roster but provided real spark in his return to Indianapolis. In 53 games, he hit .318/.384/.469 with 20 extra-base hits and a dramatically improved 25/21 SO/BB ratio with 27 steals in 36 tries. Davis seemed to have overhauled his approach, resulting in better discipline and power. He was no longer a grip-and-rip type in the box and didn’t appear overmatched. Pittsburgh liked the adjustments and recalled him up in June. He’s been in the majors ever since. Davis started slowly, but Pittsburgh stuck with him and, this time, gave him regular at bats. In 24 games, he hit a capable .271/.357/.354. He was now particularly effective against lefties, and with Nyjer Morgan rising from AAA, looked ready to assume part of a capable, and very fleet-flooted, platoon. But Pittsburgh judged McLouth a more complete package. So despite a 42-62 record that put them 14.5 games out of first, the Pirates made a buyer’s move at the trade deadline, sending Davis and a player to be named (Stephen McFarland) to San Francisco for veteran starter Matt Morris. Morris was 32, an innings eater, and, significantly, had nothing left. Zero. He’d make 16 starts for Pittsburgh, going 3-8 with a 7.04 ERA and a 62 ERA+. Terrible stuff.
Davis started fast with the Giants, hitting .364 in his first 18 games, and received more opportunities in a straight platoon with Dave Roberts. In total, he went .282/.363/.380 with a good 25/14 SO/BB ratio and 17 steals in 21 tries, covering all kinds of ground in centre next to 42-year old Barry Bonds who was in the midst of what would be the last season of his polarizing career. Davis looked to have a home at last. But that offseason, in search of a new post-Bonds identity, the rebuilding Giants signed scrappy Gold Glove winner Aaron Rowand to play centre, effectively eliminating Davis’ role.
In 2008, Davis still made the team out of spring training but rarely played and landed on waivers in April. Oakland had witnessed his raw from across the Bay. With plans to embrace more athleticism in their lineup, they snapped Davis up and played him often. He got into 101 games but hit just .260/.288/.372 with little pop and a miserable 34/7 SO/BB rate – though he did manage 25 steals in 31 tries. Trouble was, Davis couldn’t buy his way on base and hit only .223 when used as a leadoff hitter. Once again he seemed useful only as a defensive replacement and pinch runner. He was a fringe major leaguer saved by one excellent, exploitable skill.
Or so it seemed until 2009. Davis began the season as Oakland’s fourth outfielder. But saw few opportunities. On June 2, he had 41 at-bats and was hitting .146 with no extra base hits. But injuries began to deplete the A’s brittle Oakland lineup and Davis eventually got a chance to start. He didn’t look back. He hit .324 the rest of the way – fourth best in the league – for a final line of .305/.360/.423 with 27 doubles, 5 triples, and 3 home runs with 41 bases swiped in 125 games. He became the first Athletic since Rickey Henderson to steal 40 bases, nabbing three-quarters of them after the All-Star break. Indeed, his entire second half was excellent. He was still overly aggressive at the plate, with a 70/29 SO/BB rate, but he was finding gaps and utilizing his wheels. A .361 BABIP didn’t hurt, either. It seemed unlucky that Davis could sustain it – but, with his speed, figured to beat averages on balls in play. The overall approach was a more pressing concern. But he’d assembled an excellent 3.8 WAR season. Clearly, it wasn’t completely holding him back. Once old for his levels, Davis now seemed young at just 29. For the first time, he entered the offseason as a sure starter. The question was: could he repeat the performance, or would this prove to be Davis’ career peak?
Unfortunately, all signs now point to the latter. Davis’ luck ran out in 2010. He was healthy. Oakland committed to him. But he couldn’t sustain his breakout success. Davis hit a .284/.320/.377 slash. He even stole 50 bases, only getting caught 11 times – a great 82% success rate. Davis also set career highs in games played (143), runs (66), hits (149), doubles (28), home runs (5), and RBI (52). In many ways, his performance was identical. He simply was as fortunate. His BABIP (.322) normalized. He didn’t drive the ball as much (a -4.5% LD Rate) and his discipline completely eroded (78/26 SO/BB), resulting in just a 4.6% walk rate. He was pressing and it showed. Davis averaged just 3.40 pitches per plate appearance, the lowest of his career, and played to a poor 1.2 WAR. There were grumblings about mental errors both on the bases and in the outfield. Adding it all together, Oakland prepared to enter 2011 with Coco Crisp in centre and sent Davis to Toronto for relief prospects Danny Farquhar and Trystan Magnuson.
The 2011 Blue Jays started the year short on outfielders sans Vernon Wells. They were also short on speed. Davis was essentially gifted the role of Opening Day leadoff man and centre fielder. At worst, he seemed capable of hitting lefties. He was, as they say, an adventure. Exhibit A: He was the first Blue Jay to reach base in 2011. Got picked off dead-to-rights. Then scampered his way out of it. Behold:
Curious stuff like this became the norm with Davis and between bizarro baserunning and a bunch of bad breaks on fly balls, came questions about his baseball sense. Worse, he couldn’t get on base, going just .238/.273/.350 with 21 doubles, 6 triples and a single home run, his SO/BB rate (63/15) plummeting further. That’s a lot of strikeouts for 320 at bats. He flailed badly against righties (.221 AVG, .504 OPS) and played his way out of a job in June, hitting .163/.171/.000, with a 21/1 SO/BB. Despite his 34 stolen bases (and someelectricmoments on them) he gave John Farrell little choice but to platoon him. Corey Patterson, Mike McCoy, Dewayne Wise, Adam Loewen and even Travis Snider all saw time in centre field and, in July, the Blue Jays acquired Colby Rasmus from St. Louis, ending any real shot Davis had of winning the starting job back. The position was still messy. Davis’ season was a disaster. To cap it off, he tore his left hamstring in August (virtual death for a speed player) and didn’t return. He looked like a possible roster casualty in the offseason – particularly after the Jays added right-handed hitting Ben Francisco in a trade with Philadelphia – but Toronto retained Davis and he enters 2012 as a pinch runner and fifth outfielder.
Players like Rajai Davis inspired the old baseball line that you can’t steal first base. Once he’s there he can be a joy to watch – even when he causes grey hairs – and, when used correctly, can be a tremendous weapon. He cost the Jays virtually nothing (Farquhar and Magnuson are both back in the organization) while also providing defensive depth at all three outfield positions and a speed no other player on the roster possesses.
As a 38th round draft pick, he’s had a great career. He seems like a great guy, liked by his teammates. And should contribute as a role player around the majors as long as his legs will let him. But it’s hard to see Davis lasting in Toronto beyond this season, even in a platoon capacity, with Eric Thames, Travis Snider and Anthony Gose jockeying for jobs.
Blue Jays fans should enjoy the ride while it lasts. Because, as one of Davis’ old platoon partners once proved, you never know what might happen…