Wednesday, March 7, 2012

30 Jays in 30 Days - Darren Oliver Gets Better with Age

Who: Darren Oliver, No. 38. Left-Handed Relief Pitcher. 6’2, 200 LBS. 41 years old.

Provenance: Kansas City, MO. Drafted in the third round of the 1988 amateur draft.

Contract Status: Signed one-year, $4.5 million deal in offseason. Jays hold an option year for 2013 at $3 million, with a $500,000 buyout.

(Ancient) History: 18 MLB seasons. 654 games pitched, 229 games started for Texas, St. Louis, Texas, Boston, Colorado, Florida, Houston, New York (NL), Los Angeles (AL) and Texas.

Career Stats: 4.60 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 1167 strikeouts and 690 walks in 1810.0 innings pitched.

Late Career Stats: 2.85 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 273 strikeouts and 87 walks in 322 innings from 2007 onwards.

2011 Stats: 2.29 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 44 strikeouts and 11 walks in 51.0 innings with Texas.

Bullpen Connections from the Distant Past: In Darren Oliver’s first MLB appearance on September 1st, 1993, he came on in the 10th inning of a tie game in relief of a Texas Rangers closer named Tom Henke. He walked Mike Greenwell on four pitches and was summarily dispatched.

Looking Back: Darren Oliver has been around so long that he predates most of the nerd stats on Fangraphs. Which is fine when you consider that his career only really began to take off in 2007. (Life begins at 36, as the saying we just invented goes.) Oliver’s career looked to be finished in 2005, when the Colorado Rockies released him after Spring Training, and he sat out the entire season. But a decent comeback season with the Mets in 2006 led to three stellar seasons with the Angels and two with the Rangers.

So how did Oliver go from staring into the abyss to being a key bullpen arm for World Series contenders? There are two notable changes that you find when picking through the data from 2007 onward: First, he stopped throwing a cutter. In 2006, he mixed it in 19% of the time, but by the time he arrived in Anaheim, he’d dropped it completely from his arsenal.

Secondly, Oliver found some extra heat on his fastball, jumping up from an average of 86.1 M.P.H. in 2006 to 88.6 in 2007, a level that he’s maintained or improved upon in subsequent years. That increase in velocity might not look as monumental as it actually is. Usually, pitchers will be able to touch a few miles per hour above their average, and a lefty reliever who can get above 90 M.P.H. in a tight spot with their fastball is a valuable piece for a manager to play late in games.

Over the past two seasons, Oliver has stripped down his repertoire essentially to two pitches, the fastball and a slider. That might not be ideal for a starting pitcher, but for a reliever, you can be very effective if you can work with your two strongest pitches and throw them consistently for strikes.

Looking Forward: Oliver has shown the ability to get both righties and lefties out, so he won’t necessarily be limited to “left-handed one-out guy” (LOOGY!) duty. Depending on how effective he is early in the season, and how the back end of the bullpen shakes out, it’s likely that he’ll get the ball in the seventh and eighth innings, especially with runners on.

It will be interesting to watch how Oliver performs now that he’s moved out of the AL West and into the teeth of the toughest division in professional sports. Oliver posted decent numbers last season against the Yankees (.567 OPS against in 18 plate appearances) and Rays (.308 in 13 PAs). The Red Sox touched him up for three runs on a homer and three walks and a .748 OPS against in 18 PAs. The Jays actually gave him his roughest ride in the division, with an .813 OPS against in three games, and three runs scored.

2012 Expectations: With a lot of added arms in a new-look bullpen, the Jays’ ultimate success or failure doesn’t hang in the balance of the 50-odd innings that Oliver will pitch this season. If this year turns out to be the year that it all goes askew and his age catches up with him, there will be other options to carry the load.

But given Oliver’s steady and solid performance over the past four years, we expect that he will at the very least provide a reliable matchup arm in tight spots for manager John Farrell. With the number of tough left-handed hitters on the teams that matter, having an effective answer to those hitters could be worth a couple of wins over the course of the season.


Anonymous said...

I'm really loving the in-depth look you do for each player!

Tao of Stieb said...

Thanks...I'm glad that you find them entertaining.

Sometimes, I feel like I'm just rambling on to myself here. It's nice to know that someone's reading along.