Pitching Profile: Baltimore Orioles Reliever Darren O’Day

While the New York Yankees brought in Aroldis Chapman, the Toronto Blue Jays acquired Drew Storen, and the Boston Red Sox traded for Carson Smith and Craig Kimbrel, the Baltimore Orioles re-signed one of their own. Without leaving Camden Yards, the O’s still boast a bullpen that can go toe to toe with any other in the division. Ian York uses PITCHf/x to analyze side Baltimore Orioles reliever Darren O’Day.

In 2015, the Baltimore Orioles had the 6th-worst starting pitching in baseball by ERA. Only two of their starters were better than average by ERA+, and in the off-season their best pitcher, Wei-Yin Chen, left to sign with the Florida Marlins. That leaves Yovani Gallardo or Chris Tillman as the putative ace of the Baltimore staff. This series is supposed to look at the aces of the AL East, and Baltimore doesn’t seem to have one. Rather than talking about Gallardo or Tillman, this article is going to focus on the best pitcher on the Orioles: Darren O’Day.

Baltimore may have a sad starting rotation, but their bullpen is among the best in baseball, with three relievers (O’Day, Zach Britton, and Brad Brach) boasting an ERA+ over 150. O’Day has been a premier setup man for years; since he joined Baltimore in 2012, through the 2015 season, his ERA+ has been 185, 188, 232, and 274 respectively. Since he is not the closer, the Orioles have the flexibility to put him in as he is most needed. In his 68 appearances in 2015, 42 began in the 8th inning, but one was in the 6th, ten in the 7th, 14 in the 9th, and one was in the 10th. In ten of his appearances, he pitched more than one inning.

As a sidearm/submarine pitcher, O’Day gives an unusual twist to his pitch repertoire. For example, here are animations of his fastball and sinker. (The fastball is from an August 5, 2015 game against Oakland, in the 8th inning; Mark Canha hit it into a forceout. The sinker was from the 8th inning of the September 15, 2015 game against Boston, and it struck out Rusney Castillo.) In these images, the solid line shows the path the pitch would take if it had no spin – that is, the divergence from that path shows the break of a pitch. The grey polygon in the “Umpire’s view” shows the strike zone, as it was called in 2015.

Notice the release point, in the top and side views: Not only is it far out to the right, it is so low that O’Day actually throws the ball slightly upward at release. This means that, unlike conventional pitchers, gravity not only doesn’t help his pitch velocity, it actually slows the pitch down. As major-league pitchers go, O’Day has fairly slow pitches: In 2015 his fastball and sinker were thrown on average 88.3 and 87.3 mph, respectively.

O’Day makes up for his lower velocity with the movement on his pitches. In reality, the movement is not especially extreme in terms of inches of break, but the direction of the break is very different from conventional pitchers. Whereas overhand pitchers put backspin on their fastballs, making them rise relative to the path they would follow with no spin, O’Day’s sidearm delivery puts more horizontal spin on his fastball and makes it break laterally, with a relatively small amount of rise (3 to 5 inches of rise, compared to the more typical 10-15).

The difference for the sinker is even more dramatic. For overhand pitchers, the sinker (or two-seam fastball) is thrown with the spin angle tilted sideways, but it still has some backspin. A typical sinker thrown overhand still rises relative to gravity, but not as much as the pure fastball. Pitches thrown with front spin generally have much lower velocity than the equivalent fastball, because of the unnatural movement needed to spin the ball.

However, when O’Day throws a sinker he is able to keep his fastball velocity and take all the backspin off the ball. His sinker actually has some front spin, and truly does sink relative to gravity, as well as having significant lateral movement. We can see this by looking at spin direction vs. speed:

Spin of 180 o is pure backspin, 90 and 270 o is pure sidespin, and spin above 270 or less than 90 o is front spin. Almost all of O’Day’s sinkers have some front spin, and will truly sink, acting something like a conventional pitcher’s slider. This also shows up, of course, when we look at speed vs. vertical and horizontal movement:

O’Day’s third pitch is a slider, which also behaves unconventionally by rising relative to gravity, as you would expect from the backspin he puts on it. Most of its movement is lateral and in the opposite direction from his fastball and slider. In 2014 and 2015, he has also thrown a few changeups (orange in the charts above), but they are less than 1% of his pitches.

If O’Day’s only asset was his unusual delivery, he would probably have the sort of major-league career that most gimmick pitchers do, seeing limited use in specialized situations. It is his ability to locate his pitches that has made him a regular player. All of his pitches target the very edges of the strike zone, but the different pitches find different edges. His fastball and slider, which look identical for most of their path, begin to diverge in the last 0.3 seconds of their path, with his fastball consistently ending near the top of the strike zone and his sinker near the bottom. In these charts, from the umpire’s viewpoint, the batter would stand in between the charts. The gray polygon shows the strike zone:

In recent years, middle relievers and setup men have gone from afterthoughts, to valued role-players. The Orioles hope that their mediocre starters can keep their team in the game for 5 or 6 innings, and then turn the game over to their high-powered relievers. If they are able to get the game to O’Day with a lead, they have a very good chance of preserving the win.

Ian York uses the PITCHf/x to monitor the strike zone, highlights great performances, monitors league-wide trends and tracks the performances of some interesting young hitters.

Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

All data compiled from PITCHfx and Baseball-Reference.com.

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Ian is an immunologist and virologist who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons. Most of his time is spent driving his kids to baseball and soccer games, during which he indoctrinates his children on the glories of Pedro Martinez, the many virtues of the Montreal Expos, and other important information.

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