When it comes to Darren O'Day, the low-hanging fruit has to be swingin' past your knees in order to justify picking at it, because in his time with the Orioles, he's been that good.
O'Day, who's pitched no less than 62.0 innings since 2012, including a 1.92 ERA in that span, earned every bit of his grandeur this offseason. The side-swiping righty has carved out a deadly niche in the 8th inning for manager Buck Showalter, a result of his near-flawless execution in mixing a sinking fastball, rising four-seamer and right to left slider. However, in 2016, he's looked just a bit off. Not that he hasn't still been solid, but for O'Day and the reputation he's built, simply being good doesn't quite look right.
Darren O'Day 2015-16
Someone like O'Day, who thrives on deceiving hitters and moving the baseball in the four quadrants of the compass, has shown that average velocity can still get batters out. Though, in 2016, batters have seemingly found O'Day a little less nasty than in years past. While he's inducing ground balls at nearly the same rate as he did in 2015, fly balls have been substituted for more line drives and surprisingly, more home runs. The Orioles love dingers, but O'Day, whose current 2.25 HR/9 is nearly triple his career 0.87 mark, has seen the baseball reach the wildlings beyond the wall more than Castle Black and Orange are accustomed to.
The obvious question of "why?" is so obviously obvious, but the evidence isn't necessarily the same. Overall pitch variation hasn't wavered. He's throwing ever-so slightly more fastballs (56.5%) than he did a year ago (55.3%) and just about the same frequency of sliders (43.5%) to 2015 (44.2%). Tasking his pitch usage to solve the dilemma won't work. Velocity may be slightly down as well, but to a near unnoticeable degree. So what it is it?
Well, believe it or not, it may be as simple as O'Day regaining the groove of Birdland's favorite frisbee.
For example, in last night's roller derby of a baseball game, O'Day entered the game in the 8th inning hoping to close the door before Zach Britton could lock the handle and throw away the key. O'Day started his first at-bat against Chris Young with a get-me-over slider for strike one, followed by a slider with a downward bite for strike two. Wieters, again calling for the slider, wanted the frisbee pitch on the outside corner, preferably a pitch mimicking a strike. O'Day failed to execute, and Young didn't miss.
In what becomes nothing more than a sidearm batting practice fastball, Young does what he should, while O'Day fails to get around his patented breaking ball.
What we in the business like to refer to as a "disco ball" because the hitter's eyes light up and all it does is spin, O'Day's slider failed to create the tilt and movement needed to muster an out. Though this was O'Day's first home run this year surrendered via the slider, his go-to pitch has lost a bit of its luster.
Darren O'Day Slider Usage, 2015-16
While the chase rate has bolstered, the exploding decline inside the strike zone really jumps out. A 3.5% increase in swings is a strange parallel to a nearly 16% rise in contact rate. Without a major wavering in whiff rate or pitch placement from last year to now, such an alarming growth in balls put in play forces one to question the shrinking validity of the pitch. But again, why?
O'Day, for reasons unknown, has managed a wider release point as the season has progressed, which may lead us to conclude as to why his slider hasn't shown the same tenacity. Any pitching coach will tell you that in order to throw a proper breaking ball, the pitching arm requires a slight bend, almost like a quarterback throws a football. Just imagine trying to throw a curveball with straight wrists and forearms. Even the thought in your head, I'm sure, looks goofy. Nevertheless, the same concept applies to O'Day, even as a sidearmer. A straight-armed slider is much harder to manipulate, thus losing the entirety of its purpose.
In an identical scenario a season ago, O'Day snaps off a perfect slider to get Anthony Rendon looking for strike three. After a bit of side-by-side diagnosis, there is a masked, but noticeable fury that O'Day initiates on this slider in comparison to last night's home run. In a strange sort of way, he gets on top of the pitch by getting further underneath his delivery. Too tall and wide results in straight and narrow. The slider to Rendon resulted in nearly 1200 RPMs, whereas the slider last night to Young was only 580 RPMs. Next time Mychal Givens pitches, pay close attention to his finish on his slider as well, as this is an issue he overcomes mid-outing from time to time.
O'Day is still managing 11.25 K/9 and a respectable 3.15 ERA, despite an imperfect secondary pitch. The thing with surrendering four home runs through June, compared to only five a season ago, is that home runs do more to magnify the issue. Folks tend to notice home runs rather than bloop singles or doubles down the line deemed as unfortunate. Luckily for O'Day however, a longer arm slot hasn't affected the rise on his fastball. Still, as deceiving as his delivery is, O'Day can't be the pitcher the Orioles, or himself, want to be with only one pitch. The lingering cloud his slider creates in any count lessens the effect of his fastball. When predictable, and in O'Day's case, consistently throwing on the same plane any pitcher suffers.
A coaching staff of Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti, as well as O'Day himself, are far too smart to allow this problem to linger. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and even a 33 year-old reliever storming into 2016 with four consecutive years of dominance in the back-end of the bullpen can go through a rut, making it hard to imagine this issue lingers for much longer.