Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tale of Two Darrens in Texas

There are a hundred stories to tell that could be a heck of a lot more exciting than a blog post about two relief pitchers. The Fan knows this and chides himself for focusing on such sideshow-like stories. But this site isn't called the Flagrant Journalist. It's about being a Fan with possibly a little journalism thrown in. Well, at least, hopefully a little bit of decent writing anyway. The Fan also knows that a big splashy story on the Yankees, Red Sox or Cardinals will garner lots of hits to the site. But those guys get plenty of stories already. The Fan wants to talk about two relief pitchers. Oddly enough, they both have the name, Darren.

Relief pitchers are in Mr. Rob Neyer's words, fungible. In other words, they are the dime a dozen variety of pitchers and according to theory, can be replaced at any time. Well a lot of that is probably true except if you are a fan of a team that can't get anybody out after the starter gets yanked. Speaking of Yanked, the Yankees bullpen (proving the point) has been horrible this week. See? The Fan got the Yankees in the post. That should bring in a few more readers.

Relief pitching is also remarkably unpredictable. A guy that is good one year can be terrible the next. Just ask fans of the Phillies. Guys in the relief role can be like vagabonds. They have a great year, get signed for another, stink up the joint and them move on to the next town where the cycle begins again. This lack of reliability is probably the most remarkable thing about guys like Joe Nathan, Mariano Rivera and the Amazing Arthur Rhodes.

Darren Oliver is nearly as amazing as Arthur Rhodes. He is pitching in his 18th season and is 40 years old. Ask any long time fan of the Texas Rangers if he or she thought Oliver would still be pitching and they would be scratching their heads trying to figure it out. The reason for that is that Darren Oliver spent most of his career as a truly lousy starting pitcher. Lousy is probably too strong a word. Some of his stats were decent enough and he had a winning record for Texas in those early years despite his penchant for walking guys and putting a lot of people on base. But that was how Texas rolled back then. They thought of hitting first and pitching second. Funny how time changes things.

Let's look back a little on the baseball life of this long-time player that few people ever think about. He was drafted by the Rangers in the third round way back in 1988. Heck, he was drafted before Starlin Castro was born! Five years later, he had a cup of coffee with the big club and pitched two games in relief and they were successful. He made the club for good in 1994. His first full year was in relief and just like now, he was very good at it. He pitched in 43 games and went 4-0 with two saves and had a 3.42 ERA and a 143 ERA+.

Then the Rangers turned him into a starter and it went pretty well for a couple of years. He went a combined 18-8 spanning 1995 and 1996 and his ERA+ was over 110 both years. But that's a bit misleading. Oliver's problem was that he walked too many guys. Plus he gave up a lot of hits. In his ten years as a starter, Oliver never had a K/BB ratio higher than 1.61. And in those years, he had a WHIP of 1.50 or higher eight times and some times it was significantly higher. He was sort of a little-more-reliable Perez on the Mets without the strikeouts.

Predictably, the Rangers got rid of him in 1998 and he actually had a couple of decent years in St. Louis. They were his two lowest years in WHIP as a starter. Then he went back to Texas for two terrible years. He went a combined 13-20 in those two years and his WHIPs were 1.787 and 1.649. His ERA+ in those years? 68 and 78. Yowza.

Oliver then spent a forgettable year in Boston. He then had a decent year (league average anyway) for the Rockies in 2003. He then spent part of 2004 in Houston and the other part with the Marlins. And then he missed all of 2005. The Mets resurrected his career and made him a full time reliever in 2006. And unlike most old lefties, Oliver is not a LOOGY. Oliver pitched in 45 games in relief for the Mets that year and pitched 81 innings. He's been a reliever ever since and a very good one. He spent three productive years with the Angels and now fittingly, he is back with Texas, the place where he began his career as a reliever all those years ago.

Oliver's specialty as a reliever is pitching multiple innings when the starter struggles and has to be pulled early. In that sense, you could call Oliver a long relief guy, but he's so much better than that. In his five years of relief pitching, he's a vulturistic 19-5. So if you add in his year of relief for Texas in his first full year, he is now 24-5 as a reliever. Pretty spiffy that. Oliver's ERA+ over the last five years reads as follows: 127, 120, 155, 167 and this year a remarkable 254. So he is getting better the older he gets. This year, he's pitched 20+ innings in 19 appearances and has given up one earned run. It doesn't get much better than that.

Darren O'Day pitches in the same bullpen as Darren Oliver, but he got there by a totally different route. O'Day, 28 years old, was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and pitched for the University of Florida. Following his college career, he went undrafted. That's right, nobody wanted him enough to draft him. The Angels signed him as a free agent in 2006.

Remarkably, two years later, the undrafted O'Day was pitching for the Angels in the major leagues. He got into 30 games as reliever for the Angels in 2008 and was pretty decent for a new guy. He ended up with a 98 ERA+ and a WHIP of 1.454 to go along with a 2.07 K/BB ratio.

But the Angels weren't impressed enough with him to protect him on their roster and the Mets drafted him in the Rule V draft in 2009. As a Rule V player, if the Mets brought him to the majors to start the season, they either had to keep him on the roster or risk losing him. He did get into three games for the Mets and gave up six base runners in three innings of work. But that was in part due to bad defense and his two runs given up were unearned. Regardless, the Mets needed roster space and sent him to the minors. The Rangers then swooped in and claimed him and he spent the remainder of the year with them.

And he was great for the Rangers in 2009! He finished with 64 appearances for them and had a 1.94 ERA and a WHIP of 0.942. He saved two games and won two but contributed for a whole lot of other very successful outings. O'Day has started 2010 even better. After his 1.2 innings of scoreless relief on Wednesday night, his ERA is sitting pretty at 0.54. He's pitched 16 and a third innings and given up one earned run. So if you are keeping score, that's 36 and a third innings combined for the two Darrens in Texas with only two earned runs. That's pretty darn effective. Wouldn't the Angels and the Mets both kill for those kinds of relief results this year?

One of the cool things about O'Day's tenure with Texas is that he has become a fan favorite. When he pitches, the crowd goes crazy and shouts, "O'Day, O'Day, O'Day," instead of "Ole, Ole, Ole." It's tremendous fun.

Relief pitchers may be "fungible," but when they do well, they are remarkably helpful to a team. There is no way the Rangers would even be in the AL West conversation without their contributions. It may not be glamorous, but it sure helps win ball games.

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