The storied histories of the United States Naval Academy and Major League Baseball have intersected exactly three times.
You can be forgiven if you aren’t completely up to speed on the story of Nemo Gaines, who was at the academy from 1918-21, then made his big-league debut later that year on June 26 with the Washington Senators — modern-day Minnesota Twins — against the New York Yankees at Polo Grounds.
A little less than a month later, the 23-year-old Gaines threw an inning against the Cleveland Indians at Dunn Field, bringing his MLB career to a close with four appearances, 4.2 innings, one strikeout, two walks, five hits and zero earned runs.
As one might expect, Gaines’ non-MLB life is more interesting than his time with the Senators. He went back into the Navy after his career ended, and was a U.S. naval attaché — military expert stationed at an embassy for diplomatic missions — in Peru during World War II.
After that, he opened a hardware store with his brother and raised beef cattle back near his hometown of Alexandria, Va. — just outside of Washington, D.C.
More recently, right-handed reliever Mitch Harris spent a large chunk of the 2015 season with the St. Louis Cardinals, posting a 3.67 ERA over 27 innings in the only year he spent in the big leagues. He has dealt with arm issues in the meantime and is currently not pitching in the professional ranks.
But the third player is one the Twins fans are likely to become a bit more familiar with — right-handed reliever Oliver Drake. The Twins claimed Drake off waivers on Friday, and the right-hander made his first appearance in the clubhouse at Target Field about three hours prior to Saturday night’s game.
It’s been a whirlwind season for Drake, as evidenced by the fact that he came in toting a bag with the logo of the Los Angeles Angels on it.
It’s not unusual for players claimed off waivers to have the bag from their most recent team with them. Even Matt Magill — who became a first-time father over the weekend — had a Los Angeles Dodgers logo affixed to his luggage when the Twins promoted him to the big leagues earlier this season.
But the Angels aren’t Drake’s most recent MLB team. The Twins claimed Drake off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays (Aug. 3), who claimed him off waivers from the Angels (July 26), who claimed him off waivers from the Cleveland Indians (May 31), who purchased him from the Milwaukee Brewers (May 5).
No, seriously — that has all happened this year. And when Drake came in to pitch the ninth in Saturday’s win over the Kansas City Royals, the 31-year-old righty set a big-league record by appearing in a game with his fifth team of the season.
For a position that thrives on rhythm and is based on messing up timing, the world has been a bit upside down for Drake this year.
“It’s not easy,” Drake said about how he’s handled all the commotion. “Fortunately I have a great support system with my family and my wife. She’s probably been the savior of this whole thing because she’s been with me this whole year. There’s been times she’s had to pack up apartments, line up car shipping, everything. We’ve just been bouncing all over the place. She’s really saved me a lot and made this a lot easier. Along with her, the rest of my family has kept everything real positive and just try to stay focused and when I get opportunities, try to take advantage of them.”
While the initial thought about a player bouncing around this much would most likely be negative, it’s at least somewhat encouraging that teams keep claiming him when he hits the waiver wire.
“My agent keeps telling me it’s always good to be wanted,” Drake said following his appearance on Saturday night. “That’s definitely a nice thing. I keep getting good opportunities, so I’m just going to try take advantage of this one.”
Even with all the limbo, Drake at least had a little time to pick up the pieces with this move. Or perhaps more accurately, his wife Shannon did.
“I got a call yesterday afternoon, so I kind of had some time to prepare and pack some things up,” he said. “I was at home in Massachusetts. So I was able to kind of pack some stuff, get ready, get a decent night’s sleep and get on a flight not too early this morning and flew in. We landed around 2:30ish, I think. I just came straight here to the ballpark to get ready, you know, meet everyone and get prepared for the game.”
Despite all the time off — Drake had thrown just three times in big-league games since mid-July — he was actually pleased to be thrown right into the fire, even if it wasn’t a particularly high-leverage spot.
The Twins were up 8-2 when Drake was called into the game.
“It’s nice because it can be crazy sometime with all the travel,” Drake said about getting right into the swing of things. “I just get back to playing baseball. That’s been the toughest thing this year. I’ve had so much time just kind of in limbo where you can’t do anything. I think my catch partner for the whole time has been a fence back home.
“So like it’s just nice to get back out there and playing baseball, throwing to hitters and competing. Then to come in, get a win with the team and be able to throw up a zero in my first outing tonight. It’s a good first step.”
Chatting with Drake after his appearance gave reporters the unusual chance — since these guys are usually intercepted prior to their first game for media questions — to get him to comment on his perhaps dubious record.
“It’s definitely cool having all the jerseys,” Drake said with a chuckle. “That’s going to be something that, looking back, will be a cool collection. I don’t know if it’ll be something I brag about. It’ll definitely be a neat story, especially down the line after the baseball career with kids, grandkids or anything, and they’ll see I think six jerseys I have now that are framed. My wife keeps joking that we should have them put up year-by-year and we should have one year with all five jerseys.”
There was a lot of hubbub on social media about why the team claimed Drake to give a pitcher over the age of 30 a shot over some of the other youngsters in the organization.
After all, Drake has now thrown 118 big-league innings — spread across the last four seasons — with an ERA of 4.96. Even after his scoreless inning with the Twins, his ERA for the year looks more like a toll-free service (8.04).
At the risk of getting over-analytical, his career FIP is 3.48. FIP is short for fielding-independent pitching, and basically works to show what a pitcher’s ERA would be with some of the luck parts of pitching evened out. In short, it seeks to tell you how well a pitcher pitched by saying the sort of ERA their peripheral stats deserves.
So a 31-year-old pitcher with a 3.48 ERA instead of FIP would be a bit more of a hot commodity on waivers.
The numbers that work in Drake’s favor are his strikeout figures (9.9 per nine for his career), and the fact that he keeps the ball in the park (0.8 HR/9) and on the ground (46.9 percent). His WHIP is unsightly (1.53) and he’s allowed the same number of hits per nine innings as he’s gotten strikeouts. That, combined with only a so-so walk rate (3.9 per nine), has pushed his WHIP to where it presently stands.
But there’s talent to dream on, as much as one can dream with a middle reliever on the wrong side of 30.
“I’m just trying to get guys out as quickly as I can,” Drake said of his mindset on the mound. “If I can pound the strike zone and get ahead and get guys in positions where I’m in favorable counts I know that I have pitches and if I execute them I can put them away by strikeouts. I just want to get people out and put up zeroes. Especially after this year that’s the No. 1 goal.”
The moneymaker in Drake’s repertoire is his split-finger fastball. He throws it frequently (44.9 percent for his career) and pairs it with a low-90s fastball (92.6 mph average this season) that has touched 95 at times this year.
His splitter has a career swinging-strike rate of 16.9 percent — average is 10 percent, but figure higher for offspeed/breaking pitches and lower for conventional fastballs — and has induced grounders at a rate of 53.2 percent for his career.
For a four-seam fastball, his swinging-strike rate is 8.8 percent for his career — for that pitch, a solid figure — and he’s mixing in a curve this year to give hitters a bit of a different look.
“I really started working on (the curve) this past offseason,” Drake said. “Last year I was still just fastball and split and the coaches at Milwaukee thought it might help. So far it’s still a work in progress. I’m using it and it’s been effective. Like anything, when it’s new, you want to find the times and spots to use it and get the reps in.”
Who knows what Drake’s time with the Twins holds? He sure doesn’t. Sometimes to know where you’re going is to know where you’ve been.
For Drake, that’s a significant source of pride. He pitched there for two years, posting a 3.48 ERA in 27 appearances (23 starts).
“It’s pretty cool. My time at the Naval Academy was truly special,” he said. “Just those two years there, the people you meet, the experiences you have, they’re unlike anything else. It’s such a special place. Just the coolest thing I think is I’m able to get publicity for the place. Every time I go to a new place which this year has been a lot everyone likes to talk about me attending the Naval Academy. I don’t think there’s any place I could speak higher of. I truly love it. It was special. I was just lucky enough to go there.”