Darren O’Day — Future Closer?

Over the past four seasons, there has been no steadier presence in the Baltimore Orioles bullpen than Darren O’Day. Since 2012, the 32-year-old sidewinder has compiled a 1.94 ERA in 265 appearances for the Orioles with a 23-8 record. He has also struck out 9.6 per nine, showing that a sidearm pitcher can be much more than a soft-tossing, pitch-to-contact type. The 2015 season has been O’Day’s best, and he was rewarded with an All-Star appearance. In 57.1 innings to date this year, O’Day has posted a career-low 1.57 ERA with a strikeout rate of 11.1 per nine. This sterling campaign could not have come at a better time for the eight-year veteran as he prepares to enter free agency following the conclusion of the season.

Last night, O’Day was brought into close out a 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays and earned his third save of the year and 11th of his career. He threw 14 pitches, 10 of them strikes, and retired the Rays in order. As I watched, I couldn’t help wondering if this could be a sign of things to come for O’Day in 2016.

The sidearm pitcher has long been an enigma in the Major League bullpen. Go read the chapter on Chad Bradford in Moneyball. Bradford was sidearm to the max, but he was a perfect example of how spectacularly bad things can go when a sidearmer loses his mechanics. He went from a 3.11 ERA and 1.7 BB/9 in 2002 all the way to a 4.42 ERA and 3.7 BB/9 in a span of two short seasons. Middle relievers are unpredictable, but add in the sidearm element and you’ve got a supposedly ticking time bomb.

O’Day’s not like that. He has been remarkably consistent his entire career, and his walk rate has been in gradual decline, as has his ERA. His strikeout rate is climbing while his home run rate stays flat. Zach Britton will get all the love in the Orioles bullpen, but a case could be made that O’Day has been just as good over the past two years.

Unlike most sidearm pitchers, O’Day actually throws fairly hard. His average fastball velocity this season is close to 88 mph, and his slider comes in close to 80. Most pitchers who employ the sidearm delivery are lucky to see their best fastballs come in at 80. Because he has good velocity, O’Day can challenge hitters up in the zone like a pitcher with a more standard delivery. Even though it’s just 88, from his low release point, the ball gets on top of a hitter quickly with good rising action. Take a look at this strikeout of Russell Martin.

O’Day also has the makeup to be a closer. He has escaped multiple bases loaded, no out situations this season. He’s held opponents to a .184 batting average with men in scoring position, and has given up only one hit in 15 bases loaded opportunities all season. Is that just luck, or does O’Day have some unquantifiable ability to bear down when the opponent threatens? While it’s hard to define how “clutch” a player is, O’Day does have a career .196 BAA with RISP, so that ability to prevent hits in key situations has been a career long trend for the right-hander.

Darren O’Day does not look like a conventional closer, but he’s got the raw stuff and mentality to handle the role if a team is willing to give him a chance. It’s exceedingly rare that a sidearm pitcher has been given a chance to close in the Major Leagues, but teams have become more willing to trust the numbers, and the numbers do indicate that O’Day should have the ability to close games. While he throws sidearm, O’Day has the strikeout stuff you want from a closer and is battle tested from his four years in Baltimore. The only thing that could prevent O’Day from getting a chance to close besides a team’s unwillingness to look beyond his delivery is his age. O’Day will be 33 years old on October 22. It’s hard enough predicting the fate of middle relievers into their mid-30’s, but could be even more hard when the sidearm element is added to the equation.

O’Day will also get knocked for not having “closer experience,” as if getting outs in high pressure situations in the seventh and eighth innings as O’Day has done for four years straight is less valuable than getting outs in the ninth. The Orioles have been beaten up over their record in close games under Buck Showalter, and O’Day played a huge part in making sure the Orioles stayed on top in all of those tight ballgames.

It’s clear O’Day deserves a shot at closing, but will he get it? The better question may be, does he even want it? O’Day seems like the type of guy who is happy to handle whatever role the team gives him, and has never said anything about closing. Regardless, Darren O’Day would make an outstanding Major League closer and could help break down barriers for sidearm pitchers if he is given a chance to get the final three outs on a regular basis.

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