Braves: Darren O’Day is quietly having a career year

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He may have gotten a late start — when it comes to actually beginning his Braves pitching career — but 37-year-old righty Darren O’Day is making up for the lost time. As of Wednesday morning — now with 14 relief appearances across 12.2 innings this year — the veteran and former Oriole carries a sparkling 0.71 ERA (1.49 FIP), including 12.79 strikeouts per nine and just 2.13 BB/9. Among the Braves’ top-five bullpen in all of baseball, O’Day’s current allowed Hard Hit rate of 17.2% is the lowest on the team (among relievers with at least ten innings-pitched in 2020) and is good for fifth-best in all of MLB. The guy doesn’t throw hard, but this season opposing batters have simply been over-matched and out-dueled.

And for O’Day as Brave, it’s been a long time coming…

If you recall, O’Day was acquired at the 2018 trade deadline in a deal with the Orioles, along with starter Kevin Gausman. As is often the case, the Braves needed help in the rotation, and after taking a long look at the Rays’ Chris Archer (aren’t we glad that didn’t happen!), GM Alex Anthopoulos opted for Gausman and his cheap salary (plus he still had two more arbitration seasons left).

Baltimore sent O’Day mainly for salary relief purposes, and the Braves took full responsibility for the two years and $18 million left on the veteran reliever’s contract. The deal — which cost the Braves four minor leaguers and $2.5 million in international bonus money — was all about getting Gausman, for at the time O’Day was on the shelf, having just had surgery on his torn right hamstring. There was no way he would return in 2018, so the Braves were holding out hope that O’Day could help contribute out of the ‘pen at some point during the 2019 season.

Well, 2019 was a wasted year as well…

Recovering from a torn hamstring is a long and miserable process, and for O’Day, it was no different as he sat out for a total of 14 months because of the ailment (July of 2018 to September of 2019). A Sept. 7 debut in 2019 only allowed for eight appearances and 5.1 innings-pitched for the year, though all-in-all O’Day looked fantastic during the season’s final month, posting a 1.69 ERA (2.09 FIP) to go along with six strikeouts and just one walk. He also completed four scoreless appearances in last year’s postseason series against the Cardinals, most notably picking off Harrison Bader in the 8th inning during a one-run Game 3. Once the Braves were eliminated in the NLDS, O’Day became a free agent, and it appeared his days in Atlanta may be over.

Heading into the 2020 offseason, I’ll be honest, I didn’t really expect the Braves to bring back O’Day. Sure, his career 2.51 ERA is impressive, but up until then, the team had already paid $18 million for exactly 5.1 innings and 0.1 fWAR over the last season and a half. However, along with catcher Tyler Flowers and outfielder Nick Markakis, the Braves handed a one-year deal to O’Day, which featured a $2.5-million 2020 salary and an option for the 2021 season (coming out to $10 million altogether). Still, though, the expectations were quite small, and ZiPS projected just 11 innings from O’Day this pre-season.

 

A Career 2020

So far this season, O’Day has already matched his overall WAR total from 2018, and according to Statcast, he ranks within the top 85% of baseball in essentially every pitching metric, save for whiff-rate (top 81%). As of right now, this is one of baseball’s most-unhittable and unknown relief pitchers:

O’Day’s 2020 MLB Percentiles 

  • Exit velocity — 92%
  • Hard-hit% — 99%
  • xWOBA — 94%
  • xERA — 94%
  • xBA — 85%
  • xSLG — 96%
  • Barrel% — 98%
  • K% — 93%
  • Whiff% — 81%

 

It’s unreal what O’Day’s doing with his fastball — a pitch that has averaged just 85.9 mph so far in 2020, though is keeping opposing batters at bay and limiting them to only a .050 AVG. That’s just one hit in 20 at-bats, thanks to a pitiful 82.1 exit-velocity. The contact coming from batters is so weak that it doesn’t really matter if they connect. However, O’Day is still generating whiffs at a 34.1% clip with the heater.

And then there’s his slider, which at this point admittedly isn’t as dominant as his fastball (but I mean, how could it be?). At 42.5%, O’Day leans on that breaking ball quite a bit (he throws his fastball 46% of the time), and though he has allowed opposing batters to manage a .273 AVG against the offering, only one of the six hits he’s allowed has been of the extra-base variety (a double). 

At this point, O’Day’s slider is his go-to pitch for generating strikeouts, and when there are two strikes, he’s punching out batters at a 36.4% rate (the highest rate of any of his pitches). For right-handed batters, that slow and sweeping slider is almost impossible to time. According to FanGraphs‘ Pitch Info, O’Day’s 78.4 mph slider is the seventh-slowest slide-piece in the National League. His slider is also above-average in terms of horizontal movement, ranking 12th in the NL in side-to-side break.

O’Day’s third and final pitch — his sinker, or two-seam fastball — has also been unhittable (literally). Primarily against righties, he’ll use his sinker to generate ground balls, spinning the pitch down and inside with plenty of arm-side action. Although, given how well he’s throwing the ball, even O’Day’s sinker is getting whiffed at more than ever, causing a swing-and-miss 22.2% of the time (his previous career-high rate was 18.6% in 2014).

 

Thus far, no one has recorded a hit versus the pitch, and though he has only thrown it 11.2% of the time, opposing batters are 0 for 5 against the offering, with an average exit velocity of just 80.9 mph (lowest of his career). The slider/sinker combo is even more deadly, simply because O’Day likes to keep both pitches in similar spots in the zone, frequently making it difficult for batters to pick up the spin of the ball (sliders break glove-side, while sinkers break arm-side). It’s easy to see that, when O’Day really has his stuff working, the two offerings can cause headaches for batters, specifically players that are less patient at the plate.

Overall, O’Day’s three-pitch mix has been incredibly effective in 2020. As he has throughout his entire 12-year MLB career, he has been primarily used against same-handed batters (64% of all opposing batters), so it’s no surprise that that trend has continued this season (thus far, righty-batters make up 77% of his opponents). Although handiness hasn’t seemed to matter for the veteran, given righties are hitting just .158 and lefties .111. And in terms of O’Day’s role in the Braves’ bullpen, even given his strong pitching so far, it appears manager Brian Snitker still prefers to utilize O’Day in lower-leverage scenarios. Of his 12.2 innings, 8.1 have come during low-leverage situations, where O’Day is holding batters to a .100 AVG, compared to a .500 AVG in his 0.2 innings of work in high-leverage (per FanGraphs).

The Braves’ strong bullpen this season has probably caused many to overlook O’Day and his video game-like numbers. Among Braves’ relievers with at least ten innings-pitched in 2020 (nine pitchers so far), including O’Day, there are seven currently holding onto sub-2.50 ERAs, giving the bullpen as a whole a strong 3.44 ERA (3.52 FIP) and the most collective WAR (2.5) in the NL. If this were a different season, like in previous years, when the Braves’ relief core had been struggling, perhaps O’Day’s dominance would receive more attention.

Either way, even if O’Day isn’t necessarily depended on for critical situations like some of the other relievers, his contributions this season have certainly helped the Braves get to where they are in 2020. With a starting rotation wholly depleted, a guy like O’Day is a valuable option for Snitker as we’ve now entered the final month of the regular season. And assuming he keeps this up, O’Day’s pitch-mix should come in handy during the playoffs.

The Braves bullpen is one of the best in 2020, and there are several relievers currently having big seasons. However, given how long it took for him to finally get healthy, witnessing O’Day’s success has been one of the season’s best stories.

Photo: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire

 

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