As Craig Calcaterra correctly points out at Hardball Talk, Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost has somewhat joylessly brought ultra-utility types aboard the American League All-Star roster instead of selecting players with bigger reputations.
But can ya blame Yost? You might recall that he got wicked close to winning a World Series just nine months ago. In a Game 7 where every last doggone base was weighted with incomprehensible leverage, playing that game at home nudged forward the Royals’ chances at winning by precious, precious percentage points. With this year’s Royals actually plausible World Series contestants — as opposed to their then-implausible candidacy at this time last year — Yost has unique motivation to play the All-Star Game to win.
It would appear that O’Day is a prime candidate to get bodyslammed by that daunting omnipresent opponent: regression. For O’Day in 2015, a 1.10 ERA stands meekly in front of a 2.96 FIP, propped up by a staggering 98.2% strand rate. And indeed: we project O’Day to play the rest of the season with a 3.04 ERA / 3.40 FIP, striking out two fewer batters per nine innings than he has through now. These are hardly a star’s projections.
I’d like to propose an alternate explanation to O’Day’s success other than a smattering of good luck. While his .194 BABIP on the season is probably not sustainable, I also don’t think O’Day will end the season with a BABIP anywhere near the league average of .294. I think that O’Day belongs in the same category of pitcher as Chris Young, noted BABIP destroyer.
Since O’Day’s debut in the majors in 2008, he’s pitched 411 innings to Young’s 577.1, and with a significant WAR lead on the starter: 5.6 to 4.2. Most relevantly, Young and O’Day are virtually deadlocked near the top of the low-BABIP leaderboard since that time, trailing only a small handful of relievers. While O’Day trails Young significantly in fly-ball percentage (56.6% to 40.0%), Young leads O’Day in infield-fly-ball percentage by a much smaller margin (15.8% to 13.5%). Considering that the league-average infield-fly rate is usually between 9.5 and 10.0%, generating such a relatively large proportion of infield flies is a huge reason why both pitchers are so dramatically ahead of the BABIP game.
As you might suspect from Young’s increasingly infamous pitching arsenal, O’Day spends a lot of time throwing deceptively inviting pitches up in the zone. Just last week, Eno Sarris shared about O’Day’s phenomenally rare submarine riseball. Sweet, sweet footage of the S.R. indicates that it’s no gimmick, a hypothesis that’s backed up by the statistics. O’Day induces whiffs on the pitch well over 15% of the time, and it has a microscopic batting average against that makes Young’s ol’ faithful fastball look extremely hittable by comparison.
Unlike Young, who stays up in the strike zone most of the time, O’Day stays low in the zone even more than he goes up. O’Day’s 2015 heat map shows that there’s almost a horizontal line across the middle of the strike zone, separating O’Day’s rising fastballs and diving sliders. The slider differentiates O’Day from Young in that O’Day generates weak contact both on the ground and in the air: the pitch gets both a lot of whiffs and a very low batting average against. Young’s career split against ground balls — .249/.249/.280 — is bested by O’Day’s: .214/.214/.238.
Is O’Day’s significant improvement in 2015 over his already smashing career numbers some good blind-dumb luck bouncing his way? Maybe. But he’s figured out how to get both his fastball/riseball and slider to break more vertically than they ever have before, which seems like a mighty legitimate way to post career-best whiff rates and strikeout rates.
And what about that abnormally high strand rate? O’Day ranks among the game’s best at stranding runners even after you remove his astronomical 98.2% rate from this season. O’Day both does and doesn’t change his approach when runners are on base, only in ways that play to his advantage. Major-league pitchers, all together, perform better when the bases are empty (generating a .246/.303/.391 line in 2015), compared to when there are runners on (.253/.329/.402). It’s the opposite for O’Day — his career line when the bases are empty is .209/.262/.348, and it’s .194/.284/.305 with men on. The game state determines what kind of contact O’Day tries to generate. With no runners on, he generates 0.98 ground balls per fly ball — this number changes to 1.06 when there are baserunners.
So! Darren O’Day has gone from undrafted to experienced playoff veteran, and has shown for years an ability to generate relatively harmless contact, even more so when there are runners on base. In 2015, his pitches are dancing more than they ever have, totally flummoxing his opposition. That FIP of his will probably never creep down to elite levels, but that’s okay: this is exactly the type of guy you want on your side if you’re going all-in to win a single game.