Darren O’Day Talks Pitching

Darren O’Day isn’t your typical submariner. While most pitchers with down-under arm angles live down in the zone, O’Day features a lot of four-seamers up, and he’s thrived while doing so. Over his 12 big-league seasons, the 37-year-old right-hander has logged a 2.55 ERA and fanned better than a batter per nine innings. Since the start of the 2015 season, his K/9 is an eye-opening 13.1.

O’Day, whose best seasons have come with the Baltimore Orioles, is currently with the Atlanta Braves. He discussed his pitching M.O., and explained why his “Jenny Finch” is such an effective weapon, in a recent phone conversation.

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David Laurila: You’re atypical in that you work up in the zone from a low arm angle. How did that come to be?

Darren O’Day: “When I was a rookie — kind of a scared rookie — I did what the team told me to do. My short time with the Mets, as well. I pitched down in the zone, because I’m a sidearmer, a submariner, and they wanted groundballs. They didn’t care about strikeouts as much back then; they just wanted quick outs, which was kind of the philosophy of the game.

“Then I bounced to my third team, the Rangers, about a year after [breaking into the big leagues]. I kind of said, ‘Forget about that. I’m going to pitch the way I want and figure out if I’m good enough to be here.’ That’s when I started pitching up in the zone, in 2009, and you saw the strikeout numbers go up a little bit.

“That’s really been the big paradigm shift in baseball, and it’s kind of ‘the chicken or the egg’ — did the high damage come first, or did the need for the swing-and-miss come first? But that’s what everybody wants, even if it costs you a couple more pitches per inning.”

Laurila: Limiting pitches isn’t all that important in your role…

O’Day: “No, it’s not. But it was stressed when I was a young pitcher — even to the relievers — that they wanted early action. My rookie year I was in kind of a long-man role, a swingman sort of thing, and that didn’t really fit me. The metrics liked me a little bit, but the numbers didn’t pop off the page. Frankly, if I hadn’t figured out how to throw the four-seam at the top of the zone, I would probably be long done by now. The strikeout numbers definitely wouldn’t have been there.”

Laurila: When did you start understanding the data end of that equation?

O’Day: “I’m not afraid of data, and I use it in a limited capacity, but for me that was all before the data revolution. It’s more so that… you know, we’d already been doing some of these things that are stressed now, like tunneling and throwing the high fastball off the curveball. Pitchers have been doing this stuff for a while, it’s just that you had to see it for yourself.

“I remember a conversation I had with Garrett Anderson early on in my career. Garrett was a quiet guy, but a nice guy. He wasn’t really warm and fuzzy, but I had a locker near him so I asked, ‘Hey man, when you’re facing a sidearmer, what are you looking for?’ He was a left-handed good contact guy, which is a guy that I traditionally would struggle to get out. He said he just wanted to hit anything that was up. Logically, that would mean I wanted to pitch down — locate and dominate the bottom of the zone — because he doesn’t want to swing at that.

“But I thought about it for a while; I started to think about it in a trap-door kind of way. If he wants to hit something up, then why don’t you exploit what he wants to hit? Why not see if you can throw something at the top of the zone, or just a little bit over the zone, that he’s going swing-and-miss at?

“Through experimentation — again, this was before the data was really there for everybody to see — I found that I had a lot more swing-and-miss at the top of the zone, and I also had a greater margin for error. As a low-arm-angle guy trying to get an opposite-handed batter out… that opens up the bottom of the zone against lefties, because they just can’t isolate on down and away.

“I’ve struggled my whole career to throw a changeup. Some guys can control all dimensions of the zone: in, out, up, down, forward, and back. I can’t control forward and back as well, because I can’t throw a changeup, so I have to control up and down much better.”

Laurila: Regarding the “paradigm shift” you mentioned, the trend has essentially played into your strength.

O’Day: “Yes, that was a fortuitous changed for me in the way I pitch. I’d rather face a power guy than a bat-control guy who can put the ball anywhere he wants. Ben Zobrist has been a tough matchup for me my whole career. He’s got a nice flat swing path — he doesn’t have the uppercut a lot of guys have now — and he can swing that flat bat at the top of the zone, the bottom of the zone, or wherever you put it. Against me, he’s a pretty nice matchup.”

Laurila: Mike Trout is 4-for-8 against you, with two home runs. As great as he is, high fastballs weren’t always considered one of his strengths.

O’Day: “Mike Trout is the best player to ever play the game. I think people take him for granted every year, in part because he plays on the West Coast. Mike’s swing is a thing of beauty — it’s so short and compact — and he makes adjustments very quickly. Unless you make your perfect pitch, he’s always got a chance to damage you. It’s going to take three quality pitches to get him out.”

Laurila: What do you remember about the home runs?

O’Day: “One time I threw him a nice little slider away on a 3-1 count, and he hit it opposite field, at night in Anaheim, about five rows deep. I said, ‘Huh. Wow. Okay.’ Then we went back and looked at some numbers, and when he was ahead in the count he was hitting like .600 on off-speed. That’s counterintuitive to what the normal guy is looking for. Mike was so good, and so feared, that he realized that even ahead in the count he was getting off-speed. So he started sitting off-speed, maybe staying back a tick, and trying to hit the ball the other way. I brought it up in a team meeting and we made an adjustment. It was ‘Hey, if we’re ahead in the count, let’s stay hard on this guy.’”

Laurila: No offense, but do you throw hard enough to “stay hard on this guy”?

O’Day: “I have no qualms about living life at 85 [mph]. It’s all about relative velocity and deception. The relative velocity of that high-and-in heater is quite a bit more than my down away-and-slider. Based on the difference in the perceived velocity, I can sneak one by him. And I’ve done it a few times. If I execute, I can get him on it.”

Laurila: What about the other home run?

O’Day: “I left it about waist high, and he poked it out just inside the right-field foul pole in Camden. And if you go back and watch it, he’s not even sure where he hit it. But his swing is so short, and his bat stays in the zone so well, that he poked it out to right. He just kind of ran around the bases like, ‘Wow, I just did that.’”

Laurila: Looking at the numbers, you’re definitely not a ground-ball pitcher.

O’Day: “No, and you’ll see that as my career went on, it’s been fewer groundballs and more weak air outs, or shallow pop flies. The one way the power revolution — whatever you want to call it — has changed things is that now mistakes go out of the park more. That’s across the board for everybody. If you leave one where they want it, you’re likely to take more damage. You can’t afford to make a mistake.”

Laurila: What constitutes a mistake?

O’Day: “You know what? Obviously you’d think that a ball middle-middle is a mistake, but there are some hitters where that’s not necessarily the case. If I’m not mistaken, if you look at José Altuve’s heat map from a couple years ago there’s a little cold spot right in the middle. So it really depends on the hitter. Ichiro Suzuki is another example. The day he retired, Tim Brown came to interview me, because over my nine years of facing him, I guess Ichiro only got two hits off me.

“[Brown] asked me how I got him out. I said I figured out that if you throw him a sinker down and away, he was going to rifle it to left field and have a nice easy double. But one time I threw him a sinker down the middle and he rolled it over for an out. I said, ‘Wait, if he’s got a good down-and-away-pitch swing, maybe if I can mix in a few right down the middle, he’s not going to know what to do with them.”

Laurila: Bob Tewksbury once told me that Tony Gwynn’s weak spot was middle.

O’Day: “It’s so counterintuitive, but I actually do believe in that. And now, with all the data, you can actually pick that out. It just takes some stones to sit there and try to purposely throw pitches middle down. But that’s really cool to hear. I really admire Tewks.”

Laurila: You throw two different fastballs…

O’Day: “Yes, I throw both a four- and a two-seamer. The four is the one that stays up at the top of the zone. My teammates have lovingly named it Jenny Finch. Softball pitchers throw rise balls, and if I throw a good high fastball it may not actually rise, but it resists sinking really well. The other one, I do want to sink.”

Laurila: What makes your ‘Jenny Finch’ effective?

O’Day: “For one, I have really good extension for a pitcher my height. And from looking at my four-seam on slo mo, I think what happens is that I kind of gyro-spin it a little bit. It’s also a product of my mechanics. A lot of sidearm/submarine guys step across their bodies and close off; then they stiffen their front leg and throw off of that. They’re kind of rotating against the front leg, whereas I step straight at the plate and kind of get out over my front leg. Then I throw. That allows me to keep the ball straight at the top of the zone.”

We hoped you liked reading Darren O’Day Talks Pitching by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Peter
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Peter

Fascinating as always! Thanks for the reporting.