Not every intrigue of Braves spring was born the day before yesterday. There is fascination here with some miles on it, too. A little experience, a dash of the unconventional, hey, those qualities can hold their own with any young up-and-comer story.
As he reports to work each day from the players parking lot just beyond left field at Disney’s Champion Stadium, Darren O’Day doesn’t just walk. He land-surfs. He rides the outer perimeter of the field aboard something called a Onewheel, basically a motorized fat tire centered on a narrow board. A 36-year old can have his toys, too.
“I’m trying to conserve energy,” he smiled. OK, first sign O’Day’s a little different. There are others.
Atlanta didn’t get to see him last season, as he was basically but a name and a promise of possible future returns in a July trade that also brought starter Kevin Gausman south from Baltimore. While Gausman slid in and made 10 starts for the Braves, the veteran O’Day would spend the rest of the summer recovering from a hamstring injury so serious it required surgery.
A one-time walk-on at Florida who was cut from the baseball team as a freshman – was he a limp-on for the Braves? – O’Day has recovered nicely. He has 11 years in the Majors, an All-Star appearance and a career 2.56 ERA as a reliever behind him. And he’s done it after a desperate change in delivery – dropping down low and side-arming it – baffling teammates as well as the opposition.
“Even playing catch with him is not fun. Not fun at all,” said his old Baltimore teammate, Gausman.
“I try to find one catch partner and stick with him because he’s used to it,” O’Day said.
While they didn’t get to witness his method last season, Braves fans do have a popular point of reference in their former reliever Peter Moylan. Although O’Day will offer up an important distinction.
“Even though we seem similar when we throw, we’re totally different,” he said. “He’s a sinker, ground ball guy. I’m more pitch-up-in-the-zone, pop-ups, fly balls. A lot of people look at me and expect me to have high ground ball rates and I really don’t anymore. More air-outs, just because of the way I pitch, up in the zone quite a bit.”
The burning question surrounding O’Day centers on the burning in his repaired hamstring. He reports that it feels “awesome” and foresees no reason that should be an excuse for him not to be ready for opening day.
He had been dealing with hamstring issues all of last season until, finally, when he went to field a bunt in a late-June game, it just popped. It certainly made him more available when the trade talks got serious, and the Braves took him on spec, knowing that a healthy version could provide some important late-inning help as well as a needed voice of experience in a young bullpen.
He comes with some great references.
“You look up the last 10 years, his numbers compare with some of the other top relievers in the game,” Gausman said. “He’s right there. I know watching him in Baltimore was impressive, not only his ability to throw the ball where he wants but doing it from down there. It’s hard to do throwing over the top. From down there is probably harder.”
The move to Atlanta was an easy one, as O’Day already had lined up a home there to move closer to his wife’s job. Elizabeth Prann is a Headline News anchor and reporter. All that was required was a small adjustment to the timetable. Must have been fate finalizing both a trade and a closing date.
O’Day has found the change in scenery beneficial on a couple fronts. For one, he has discovered a Braves training staff that has pushed him in the weight room, stressing his core strength more than at other stops. He thinks that may translate into a little more velocity, although that’s not the foundation of his game (by more velocity, for O’Day, that would be inching into the upper 80s).
And a change, any change, just can be good for a person. After having spent the better part of his last seven seasons in Baltimore – and after spending the end of 2018 on the periphery of an exciting Braves season – O’Day is anxious to become part of a new mix.
“I had a great time in Baltimore. We won a lot of games there. Made a lot of great friendships. But it’s always nice to be in a new environment. It’s a challenge getting to know new guys. It’s a younger team here, a more talented team at this point, so you kind of got to rise to the occasion.”
Resilience and rising to occasions have been something of a specialty of O’Day’s, from a young age. After getting cut from the Gators, for instance, he began experimenting with the new, slightly eccentric, delivery. His was hardly a neat, clean, high-tech lab. He taught himself a new way to throw while playing in an adult league that wasn’t exactly World Series serious.
“There were guys who would drink beer between innings, although it wasn’t like a softball league where there was a keg at second base,” he said. “There were guys in the dugout drinking beer, smoking heaters (cigarettes). There’d be a guy who could throw 90, but he could only do it for 12 pitches and he was gassed.”
But O’Day found that to be a perfect place to construct a better pitcher. “It was instrumental in me learning my delivery because it was the first time I played baseball where the results didn’t really matter. So, I could screw around a little bit and that’s what led to me throwing at a lower arm angle.”
When he returned for another tryout at Florida and began striking out everyone in sight, the Gators decided to keep him this time. He eventually grew into their closer.
Not blessed with great zip, O’Day has had to go seek out a way to keep his baseball life breathing, playing the angles, being different.
And while not throwing like most anyone else, he has had to trust himself even more than most pitchers who have gotten a toehold on a major league mound.
“I’ve met a few guys along the way who have studied (the low-angle delivery) quite a bit. But 99 percent of your pitchers aren’t pitching like this so it’s sometimes asking a lot of a pitching coach to understand the delivery 100 percent,” he said. “I know the delivery just about as well as anybody. Still, sometimes it helps to have a set of outside eyes to kind of watch it and understand it and kind of tell him what to look for, what I struggle with.”
A lot of eyes will be trained on O’Day if he can become an important contributor to this bullpen. It’s impossible to turn away when a guy like this is throwing from down there. Intriguing, some would say.