The adventures of Oliver Drake -- MLB's record-setting nomad who pitched for five different teams in 2018
It was a whirlwind season for 'the most wanted man in baseball'
Extraordinary performances littered the baseball landscape last season. Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich rode breakout seasons to their first MVP awards, while Blake Snell and Jacob deGrom did the same in claiming their first Cy Youngs. Kevin Pillar Spiderman'd his way to home-run robbery. Trevor Story launched a 505-foot moonshot.
Impressive feats, all. Still, none of them were historic or unprecedented. To find that kind of singular performance, we need to turn to a 43rd-round draft pick. To one of just three major leaguers ever to come out of the Naval Academy. To a baseball nomad who embarked on the kind of adventure we'd never before seen in MLB history.
Oliver Drake is that nomad. The right-hander, who turned 32 on Sunday, set a new major league record by pitching for five different teams during the 2018 season. And he's not even with the team for whom he last pitched last season. In fact, Drake has switched clubs another three times this offseason alone.
You might think that getting jerked around that much would frustrate the hell out of any player trying to make a living in baseball. Not so for Drake, the affable Massachusetts native who can't help but laugh at his record-setting season.
Drake finished the 2017 season with the Brewers, and opened the 2018 campaign with them too. So he and his wife Shannon did what any young couple in their position would think to do: They got an apartment.
That seemingly simple move proved to be a level of hubris that the baseball gods would not tolerate. On May 2, the Brewers designated Drake for assignment. Three days later, Milwaukee traded him to Cleveland.
"So we go to Cleveland, the team is home for a couple days, then on the road for a two-week road trip," Drake recalled in a phone chat. "We figure we don't have to rush to find a place. Then we get lucky, we're able to take over a lease from (fellow relief pitcher) Matt Belisle, he'd moved on. The day we signed the papers, I went to the field while my wife unpacked. That night I got designated for assignment. Again."
The next morning, Oliver and Shannon packed up their stuff, ready to embrace their next destination. That destination would be Orange County, as the Angels claimed Drake five days after Cleveland DFA'd him. Not wanting to tempt fate this time, the Drakes skipped apartment hunting and rented a hotel room instead. Good move. Sixteen days after the Angels claimed him, they too designated him for assignment. This time no one claimed him, so off Drake went to...beautiful Salt Lake City! He was nearly unhittable pitching for the Halos' Triple-A club, allowing just four baserunners over 7 2/3 innings. That was enough to earn Drake his fourth pitching assignment of the season, this time pitching for the Angels' big club. Eight appearances later he was...you guessed it...designated for assignment again.
"At first, you're just hoping to get picked up by a new team," said Drake. "As the season progressed, it seemed like every month we were on the move. This was the first time my wife had traveled with me all season. I remember just looking at her one day and saying, 'Quite the journey we're on this year!' It was a rude awakening for her and for me. But I'm really fortunate to have a supportive family and a supportive wife."
Drake's next stop was Toronto, which would prove to be his shortest gig of the year.
"I was there for three days, still trying to learn everyone's name" when news hit that the Jays had designated him for assignment on July 30. "The thing is, the baseball world is a pretty tight-knit one, you form friendships pretty quick. That team, every team I was with, from staff to front office to teammates, these were all positive experiences. I was fortunate to play with a lot of great players and meet a lot of cool people. Plus you never know where relationships will go in the future."
Drake's final employer of the season would also prove to be his longest and most successful stop of 2018. In 20 1/3 innings with the Twins, Drake struck out 22 batters, allowed just 12 hits, and flashed a tidy 2.21 ERA. The right-hander credited a back-to-basics approach for his end-of-year success.
"I kind of went back to some things that had worked in the past," he said. "I'm always trying to improve and make changes, this time it was a little more along the lines of mechanics. My setup is not conventional when I come set and get ready to throw. I got away from from what I used to do, and got caught up in working on new pitches. So I went back to older mechanics and back to my splitter. My split started having a little more bite, and my fastball was working too."
That's the technical explanation for his success in Minnesota. But it's possible that those same previously spiteful baseball gods were smiling down on him. They even sent him a (sort of) familiar face for that season-ending stretch with the Twins.
"When we were getting ready to move into Matt Belisle's old place in Cleveland, my wife had met him, because he was still moving out," said Drake of the apartment that he inhabited for exactly one night before learning that his team was cutting him loose. "So we get to Minnesota, and Belisle is there, pitching in the same bullpen. We had a good laugh about the whole thing."
Drake's travels haven't stopped since last season ended. The Rays picked him up November 1, then designated him for assignment on November 20. The Jays claimed him on November 26, then DFA'd him on December 26. Finally, the Rays reacquired Drake on January 4, nabbing him from Toronto in exchange for cash.
Drake said he hopes to pitch for the Rays come opening day, because he'd like to gain some stability, and because he's excited about pitching for a 90-win team with good, young talent. He's also open to starting games if Tampa Bay uses him in the opener role the team popularized last season with his relievers. Beyond that, Drake is taking silver linings out of his whirlwind 2018.
"I got an eye-opening experience from the business side," he said. "This all made me realize that it's just a numbers game. Teams kept telling me that they liked me, that I had real good stuff. I now completely understand the way this game works, that sometimes you're just the odd man out. I take it as a good sign when a team is willing to acquire me twice -- they must think pretty highly of me."
Despite the instability that comes with scrapping for reliever roles, Drake doesn't want to think ahead to his post-baseball career, instead preferring to focus on getting better and fending off all the young, hungry, talented pitchers coming up through the minors who could challenge him for jobs. When he was younger, Drake figured he might take over the family business, since his dad represented the fourth generation of Drakes running Royal Steam Heater Company in Gardner, Massachusetts. His brother is now poised to take the fifth-generation reins, so plumbing probably won't be in the cards.
In the meantime, he's enjoying the ride -- as absurd as it might be.
"I talk to my agent [Allan Donato of ACES] a lot," Drake said. "As soon as something happens, he's encouraging me, saying, 'All right, let's wait and see if you get traded, or claimed, whatever.' After a while, it was like whenever I called he'd say, 'Who do you play for now?'
"Every time I call him he thinks I'm on the move again. He's said he's never seen anything like this. He jokes that I'm the most wanted man in baseball."
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