Gators in MLB: Side-arming O'Day joins Yankees thriving on guile, not gas
Darren O’Day laughed when he thought about the gas station, a new pitching barn on the Yankees minor league complex in Tampa, Florida.
“They had to make an exception to let me in that place. I think I have to go throw at the bus stop or something,” the 38-year-old reliever said with a laugh Thursday, enjoying his first day in pinstripes.
A side-arming right-hander, O’Day agreed to a $3.15 million, one-year contract and filled the setup slot vacated when Adam Ottavino was traded to Boston in a cost-cutting move.
“An elite setup pitcher,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Certainly a righty assassin but a guy that in middle setup innings is going to be a real valuable guy for us.”
In an era when velocity is prized, O’Day conquers with guile instead of gas. He averaged 86 mph with his fastball last season but went 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA in 16 1/3 innings over 19 games with Atlanta. He struck out 22 and walked five while allowing eight hits.
"We can quantify just about everything these days: spin rates, break, all that stuff. But it’s tough to quantify deception. And I think that’s something that often gets overlooked,” O’Day said. “These hitters are so good. They get used to seeing the same stuff over and over. So 95 when I first came in the league, 95 was maybe one or two guys on the team, and he was probably the closer.
"Now everybody throws 95 and these guys — actually 95 now look like 90. So here’s the conditions: They kind of get that software program in their brain to hit this high spin 95, 96 at the top of the zone. And you got somebody coming in just a couple of ticks lower than that, maybe about 10, it just throws them off a little bit.”
New York’s bullpen is headed by closer Aroldis Chapman, whose season ended with a tiebreaking home run to Tampa Bay's Mike Brosseau in the eighth inning of AL Division Series Game 5. Left-hander Zack Britton is the primary setup man, and O’Day slots in alongside right-hander Chad Green and left-hander Justin Wilson, who has a pending deal with New York.
Rather than throwing their bullpens at Steinbrenner Field, pitchers are using what the Yankees call the gas station, constructed a short drive away at the player development complex.
“It’s just kind of a state of the art really, outfit with all the tech equipment,” Boone said, “Obviously the Rapsodos and the Edgertronics and all the high-speed cameras to where we’re really able to gather a lot of data for each and every bullpen. So it’s been of those things that’s been in the works here for the last couple of years and one of the real benefits of being over here.”
O’Day became a free agent when Atlanta declined a $3.25 million option, triggering a $250,000 buyout. His Yankees contract includes a $1.75 million salary this year and a $1.4 million player option for 2022, If he declines his option, the Yankees would decide on a $3.15 million team option with a $700,000 buyout.
He still threw overhand when he was cut from Florida's baseball team as a freshman walk-on in 2002. He joined a friend pitching for an 18-and-over league in Jacksonville, Florida.
“That's when I started I started goofing around throwing sidearm. That's the first time I'd ever played baseball where results didn't matter quite as much,” O'Day said. “And I started throwing sidearm playing shortstop, hit a little cleanup in my off days.”
He had fun and father suggested he used the sidearm motion to try out for the Gators again. He earned a scholarship from Florida coach Pat McMahon, who left after the 2007 season to become manager of the Staten Island Yankees and is now New York's international player development coordinator.
O'Day is the oldest player with the Yankees and has the most major league service time at 12 years, 103 days. O’Day has pitched for the Los Angeles Angels (2008), New York Mets (2009), Texas (2009-11), Baltimore (2012-18) and Braves (2019-20), going 40-19 with a 2.51 ERA and 600 strikeouts and 158 walks in 576 2/3 innings.
“I think every little boy’s dream is to play for the Yankees,” he said. “It was a little bit strange. I’ll be honest. I saw some of the familiar faces from across the diamond and some of the club employees that I’ve been seeing all these years and we just laughed. So guess we’re teammates now.”
In the first season of the new three-batter minimum rule, O’Day held right-hander batters to a .143 average (7 for 49 with one home run) and lefty hitters to .100 (1 for 10), helped by four-seam fastballs thrown inside to left-handed batters. Over his career, righties are batting .193 with 26 homers in 1,339 at-bats and lefties .228 with 33 in 751 at-bats.
“Fundamentally, I don’t believe you should tell managers how to manage their team,” O’Day said. “If they wanted to carry a guy for one major, very important at-bat in the seventh inning, that’s their prerogative. Selfishly, I love the rule because it takes a long time to get ready every day. ... And to get in there and just face one guy, for me, it wasn’t quite enjoyable being able to face a string of three or four hitters and really being able to feel like you’re contributing to the win of the team.”
At his age, part of O’Day’s role will be as a teacher.
“You can’t really make any great strides with people until they trust you,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I’ve been taught by others and helped with by others that help me avoid some other mistakes. So maybe I can pass that knowledge down to one more generation, one more group of young guys. and I can enjoy watching them pitch for the next 15, 20 years.”