Five months ago, the Toronto Blue Jays traded their starting left fielder for Steve Delabar. It was a bold acquisition. Delabar was a year out of A-ball and about eighteen months removed from being out of the game altogether. In Toronto, he found his stride quickly, writing the next chapter in what’s already an incredible story of perseverance. Let’s look at his background as we try to determine how big a role he can assume in the Blue Jays’ new-look bullpen.
The Anaheim Angels drafted Steve Delabar in the 43rd round, 1283rd overall, of the 2002 MLB Amateur Draft out of Volunteer State Community College in northern Tennessee. He chose not to sign and re-entered the draft in 2003 where he was selected by the San Diego Padres in the 29th round, 851st overall. In the same draft, the Padres selected Dirk Hayhurst with their eighth pick – 21 rounds and 630 picks before Delabar. If Hayhurst was the poster-boy for non-prospects, Delabar was the leaflet.
He didn’t begin his pro career immediately but eventually signed with San Diego in May 2004 as a draft-and-follow. He began his pro career with the Arizona League Padres before receiving a late promotion to the short-season Eugene Emeralds. He was used as a swingman and put up pretty pedestrian numbers between the two levels: 17 games, 9 of them starts, going 4-5, 3.90 in 62.1 innings with a 50/24 SO/BB ratio for a 7.2 K/9 with a 1.41 WHIP.
He spent all of 2005 starting in Eugene with similar results: 16 games, 4-6, 4.76 in 75.2 IP with a 59/18 SO/BB and a 1.35 WHIP. The only growth he showed was an improved walk rate. At age 22, Delabar was still in short-season ball and looked like he’d be lucky to hold on as organizational filler.
San Diego promoted him to the full-season Fort Wayne TinCaps in 2006 and he continued to hold his own but did little to stand out. In 27 starts, he went 8-9 with a 3.41 ERA in 145 IP with a 118/65 SO/BB and a 1.34 WHIP. He essentially survived by avoiding contact, surrendering a very good 8.0 H/9 and giving up just 8 home runs. But the result was a tremendous decline in his control and his walk rate surged from 2.1 BB/9 up to 4.0 BB/9. Guys like this fill the low minors for every team in baseball.
In 2007, the Padres converted him to relief with the high-A Lake Elsinore Storm. But Delabar struggled badly (2-6, 5.59, 29 IP, 33/16 SO/BB, 5.0 BB/9) in the brutal pitching environs of the California League and he was soon back in Fort Wayne. A forgotten man. Worse, he was absolutely shelled, with a 5.96 ERA and 48/46 SO/BB rate in 21 games and 68 IP. The walks worsened further (to a brutal 5.8 BB/9) and cost him time and again. It was a dreadful campaign. The only upside in his stat line was his 10.2K/9 rate as a reliever with Lake Elsinore. But he was now 24 and failing against A-ball competition. His place in the organization and, indeed, his baseball future was now in jeopardy.
The Padres gave him one last chance to hold onto a job in the Fort Wayne bullpen in 2008. But he sprained an ankle in April and, when he wasn’t hurt, disappointed on the mound: 11 games, a 5.27 ERA, in 13.2 innings with a 12/5 SO/BB rate and a 1.61 WHIP. The Padres finally cut him loose in May. No one else took a chance on him, either. Delabar did manage to catch on briefly with the Florence Freedom of the Frontier League and then the Brockton Rox of the independent Canadian-American Association. But his path back to organized baseball was now obscured and any prospects of realizing his major league dream were dim.
Delabar returned to Broxton in 2009 but his season ended in ruin. He suffered a fractured right elbow requiring the insertion of a steel plate and nine screws in the elbow to stabilize it. It was a serious arm injury and the recovery would also cost him the entire 2010 season. To most, it appeared Delabar’s baseball career was over.
Unable to play competitively, he returned home to Kentucky to work as a substitute teacher. The only game he could get into was a local slow pitch softball league. Hilariously Obscure Trivia Alert: Delabar won the 2010 Louisville Invitational Tournament’s Home Run Derby. He also began a velocity improvement program to learn tools that he thought might benefit the students he was teaching. But the experiment started working on him. With an emphasis on gaining strength and arm speed, Delabar soon found he could consistently dial his velocity up to 93 MPH – a huge leap from his earlier 89. He soon found he could touch 96. It was an incredible piece of rehab training. That’s when the instructor, Joe Newton, reached out to the Seattle Mariners to secure Delabar a tryout. His rehab complete, Delabar convinced the Mariners he was worth a minor league contract. It was April and the season had already started but Delabar was now back in organized ball almost three years after being cut.
Seattle started him back in the California League with the High Desert Mavericks. Given his injury history, he would now be used strictly as a reliever. Delabar was about to turn 28 and facing college juniors. But he cleared the mental hurdles of returning from surgery and held his own, pitching in 7 games with a 4.38, 20/8 SO/BB line in 12.1 IP. His control was poor but the Mariners took note of the 14.6 SO/9 rate and promoted him quickly to the AA Jackson Generals of the Southern League. There he threw in 23 games and went 1-3, 2.05 in 30.2 innings with an alarming 30/26 SO/BB rate. His K/9 dipped expectedly and his walk rate was now surging to an untenable 7.6 BB/9. Seattle promoted him again, anyway, this time to the AAA Tacoma Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League. Something clicked. 10 games, 1-1, 0.69 in 13 IP with an 18/6 SO/BB. He looked like a new pitcher.
The Mariners rewarded those results by calling him up when rosters expanded in September. He debuted at home against Kansas City with a scoreless inning and two strikeouts then won his first game three days against the New York Yankees. In all, he got into 6 games, going 1-1, 2.57, 7 IP with a 7/4 SO/BB rate. It was an extraordinary season. The kind TV movies are written about. After shipping bullpen parts in summer trades, the Mariners were ready to pencil him into their retooled bullpen going into 2012. It tooks Delabar 9 years to get out of A-ball. Now, after all the pain and failure, he’d made it to the show in 6 months.
Delabar made the Mariners out of spring training and opened the season with the team in Japan. But his stayed only lasted until the end of May. His peripheral stats were very strong. But in two months, Delabar surrendered seven home runs in just 24.1 innings. Bullpen meltdowns were all-too-common for the 2012 Mariners and, coupled with the team’s impotent offence, fatal. Delabar was dispatched to Tacoma and rode the shuttle back and forth until the trade deadline, when Seattle traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays for outfielder Eric Thames. Most Blue Jays’ fans were more concerned with the simultaneous acquisition of Brad Lincoln (for fan favourite Travis Snider) and Delabar’s arrival flew under the radar. That didn’t last long.
He quickly became a favourite of manager John Farrell’s and even received a moment of national attention for becoming the first pitcher in major league history to strike out four batters in one extra inning (he’s also the only Blue Jay ever to strike out four batters in one frame) in August. His combined line was a career-high 61 games, 4-3, 3.82 in 66 innings with a terrific 92/26 SO/BB ratio. In Toronto, Delabar managed to throw his fastball for quality strikes rather than pitches hitters could drive. It sets up a devastating splitfinger that’s a major weapon and is almost impossible for hitters to drive when located effectively. Delabar only gave up 3 home runs after arriving in Toronto and saw his strong strikeout rate leap to astronomical levels (11.3K/9 to 14.1 K/9). Despite a bit of comman regression, he still managed a 3.07 xFIP.
One of the reasons for his increased success is clearly his increased use of the splitter. Delabar threw just 60% fastballs in 2012 against almost 35% splitters – one of the highest rates in baseball. It’s particularly effective tailing away from left-handed hitters, which resulted in a .171/.246/.551 linefrom southpaws. He also features a toy slider with video game bite. But the pitch isn’t refined and he can at times struggle to control it. The 4-strikeout inning and 6 wild pitches show he’s not an easy pitcher to catch. When everything’s working, he’s even harder to hit. Delabar now appears poised to log important middle and late innings for the Blue Jays in 2013.
Steve Delabar enters 2013 as a potentially devastating weapon in the Blue Jays’ bullpen. Not many teams have the luxury of turning to a power arm with this kind of stuff in the middle innings. But if Casey Janssen is his usual, reliable self and Sergio Santos returns to health, that’s likely the role Toronto will use Delabar in. He’s not a sure bet. His struggles with command are well-documented. He must also keep the ball in the park and stay healthy.
But if Delabar can pick up where he left off, his acquisition will deserve to go down as one of the great under-the-radar moves of Alex Anthopoulos’ tenure. Very quietly, the reliever finished 2012 with the sixth-highest strikeout rate in baseball (min. 60IP). If you look at just his Toronto numbers, he jumps to third. Relievers come with no guarantees, but Delabar has a rare arm. He won’t be eligible for arbitration until at least 2015 and free agency until 2018. By then, he could be closing for someone or teaching again.
Delabar’s story makes him easy to root for. Here’s hoping it’s the former.
Steve Delabar, RP
07/17/83 Bats: R Throws: R HT: 6-5 WT: 220
Fort Knox, Kentucky College: Volunteer State (Gallatin, TN)
Drafted by San Diego in the 29th round, 851st overall, of the 2003 MLB Amateur Draft.
Acquired: Traded to Toronto on July 30, 2012.
Contract Status: Not eligible for arbitration before 2015.
Service Time: 0.023