16 April 2013

Darren O'Day, the O's Not-So-Secret Weapon

When the Orioles finalized their 2012 opening day roster last April, they decided to keep Darren O'Day (and Troy Patton) and send Zach Phillips to Norfolk. I thought they made somewhat of a mistake, figuring it made more sense to keep a LOOGY-type like Phillips over O'Day, who was coming off a subpar and injury-plagued 2011. (It's interesting to look back and note that Patton, for some reason, was thought to be the team's long man. He pitched at least three innings just once last season, though he did have more multiple-inning appearances than I remembered.)

I was wrong. Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette figured the O's had enough relievers who could retire both right- and left-handed batters, and they were right. Sure, Patton and now Brian Matusz were/are deployed to face a tough left-handed batter or two, but they've also been used for an inning or more at a time and don't just strictly face lefties. On Saturday, Matusz pitched the seventh inning -- he faced three lefties (Brett Gardner had a bunt single) and was left in to face Kevin Youkilis (who flied out to center). Patton and Matusz are obviously much better against lefties, but they're not as bad as a LOOGY like Clay Rapada is against righties.

Even though the bullpen probably can't replicate last season's fantastic performance, it should still be pretty reliable. Bullpen flexibility is certainly helpful. But it's also beneficial when someone like O'Day is routinely mowing down hitters.

O'Day was at least a brief member of three other big league clubs before the O's selected him off waivers in November of 2011. Duquette had not been hired yet -- that was still a few days away from happening -- and the O'Day pickup seemed to be Showalter's idea.

After a couple of good seasons in 2009 and 2010, O'Day was awful in just 16.2 innings in 2011. He said he rushed back too quickly after having surgery to repair a partially torn left hip labrum. But the O's and Showalter saw something in him, scooped him up, and placed him on the opening day roster. And they were rewarded for it: O'Day arguably had his best professional season, finishing with a 2.28 ERA in 67 innings. He posted his best strikeout rate (9.27 K/9) over a full season (somehow in 2011 he struck out 9.72 per nine in limited innings) while keeping his walks per nine below 2 (1.88 BB/9). He also again had a low BABIP (.251), though his career BABIP is .256, which helps explains why his career ERA (2.68) is lower than both his FIP (3.51) and xFIP (3.79). His career left-on-base percentage (80.5%) is also pretty high, and it's worth noting that his groundball percentages have dropped in every season, from 54.9% in 2008 to 33.9% last year. That means more line drives and fly balls, though he does boast a better than average career HR/FB rate of 8.3% and does get a lot of infield fly balls (13.7%).

There's a lot of value in someone who can get outs against both righties and lefties, and O'Day is one of those relievers. Lefties (.291 wOBA) hit him a bit better than righties (.261 wOBA), but not by a ton. (As a reference point, Felix Pie had a career wOBA of .296.) Like looking at lots of relievers' splits, there's a bit of a sample size issue; he's faced more than 280 right-handed batters than left-handed ones. But regardless, he has great numbers against both, and it's not normal for a sidearming right-hander to get those kinds of results.

As you may expect from someone who sharpened his sidearming skills while pitching in an adult men's baseball league, O'Day doesn't have big velocity numbers. At his best, he throws his fastball between 85-86 mph and his slider at 77-78 mph. In 2011, those numbers were down a little (83.9 and 76.8 mph, respectively), which is another example that he wasn't quite right. But in his first year with the Orioles, his fastball velocity ticked up to 85.6 mph, as did his slider velocity (77.6 mph). Because of that, the movement of his pitches was slightly better as well. And while his fastball has been effective, he's been as reliant as ever on his slider to get ahead of and confuse hitters. He threw his slider 44.7% of the time last season -- his highest percentage as a pro (career average of 37%). Here's Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs writing about O'Day's unique slider last October:
Where his fastball averages a lot of sink and about six inches of movement in on righties, his slider averages a lot of sink and about six inches of movement in on lefties. It is, technically, a slider, in that it’s thrown like a slider, but O’Day’s arm angle simply changes the meaning of the classification.

It would be one thing if O’Day just threw a slider, but he happens to throw a good one that he trusts. The last two years, better than 70 percent of O’Day’s sliders thrown to lefties have gone for strikes. They’re seldom swung on and missed, but they’re frequently taken for strikes, because the arm angle is unfamiliar and the movement is unfamiliar too. O’Day has a pitch he can use to get ahead of lefties, and he has another pitch he can use to put lefties away. These are rare traits for a pitcher like him.
Facing a sidearmer has to be unsettling for most batters, especially one that has great command of fastballs and sliders and isn't afraid to throw either at any time.

So O'Day is healthy, and his fastball velocity has returned, which is helping with the overall movement of his pitches. His strikeouts are up, and his walks are down. He's using both of his pitches to get ahead of and finish off hitters, and he's retiring both righties and lefties routinely. And at 30, O'Day recently signed a two-year extension with the Orioles for $5.8 million (with a 2015 club option for $4.25 million). As long as he stays healthy, O'Day should be well worth that deal -- and if he keeps pitching like he did last season, it'll be a great value. So far in 2013, he's thrown 6.1 innings and has yet to allow a run, so he's off to a great start.

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