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Darren O’Day: Lefty Killer

If you’re reading FanGraphs, you probably like baseball. If you like baseball, you’ve probably watched an Orioles game this year. If you’ve watched an Orioles game this year, you’ve probably seen Darren O’Day pitch. Even as relievers go, he pitches a lot, as he appeared in 69 regular season games, the wild card play-in game, and has now pitched in all four games of the ALDS. And, if you’ve seen O’Day pitch this year, then you’ve probably noticed that he throws from a really low arm slot, but thanks to our friends over at SBNation, we’re going to show you O’Day striking out Alex Rodriguez last night, just so you can appreciate the funkiness in all it’s glory.

Watching that, you almost feel bad for Rodriguez. How is he supposed to hit that? What is any right-hander supposed to do with a slider from that arm angle that starts on the outer half of the plate and ends up a foot outside? And, if that was the match-up option, why not send Raul Ibanez up to pinch-hit for Rodriguez? Certainly, a lefty would have far more success against O’Day’s drop-down delivery, right?

You would think. And, with pretty much every other low slot/sidearm/submarine guy on the planet, you’d be right. Chad Bradford had insanely large platoon splits. Same deal with Mike Myers. Justin Masterson‘s low arm slot is the main reason he struggles against left-handers. Guys who throw the ball from that kind of arm angle are usually brutal on same-handed hitters and ineffective against guys from the opposite side of the plate.

And yet, O’Day ran through the entire Yankees line-up last night, including six guys hitting from the left side: Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson (okay, not much of an accomplishment right now), Raul Ibanez, Ichiro Suzuki, Mark Teixiera, and Robinson Cano. That’s a pretty decent collection of left-handed bats, and O’Day just mowed them down. And perhaps the most amazing part of the entire thing is that we probably shouldn’t have been surprised.

Left-handed batters hit just .200/.237/.420 (.279 wOBA) against O’Day this year, and even for his career, they’re only hitting .232/.285/.403 (.293 wOBA) against him. To put that in comparison, lefties hit .225/.267/.402 (.288 wOBA) against CC Sabathia this year. Sabathia, of course, is left-handed. And really good.

So, how does a low-slot right-hander hold lefties to the same offensive performance as a power lefty?

Pitch backwards. Last night, O’Day threw a first pitch slider to four of the six left-handed batters he faced, and three times it got him ahead in the count. Nick Swisher fouled off his first pitch slider. Raul Ibanez took it for strike one, as did Robinson Cano. Most hitters go up looking first pitch fastball, and O’Day simply declined to give them that pitch, which is a pretty good idea for a guy who sits 85-87 and releases the ball from his hip. By starting lefties off with the slider and usually getting a free strike, O’Day was able to expand the zone with his fastball.

Here’s BrooksBaseball’s PITCHF/x plot of O’Day’s pitches to left-handers last night.

Focus on the location of the fourseam fastballs — represented in green — he threw to left-handers. Up and almost always away, but mostly up. O’Day elevates his four seam fastball extremely well, and despite only throwing it in the strike zone to a left-handed batter once, he got two swinging strikes, plus a called strike on the one he grooved down the middle.

Sliders early, high fastballs late. From a side-armer whose Twitter profile claims he enjoys “throwing like a girl”. It’s an unusual skillset to the say the least, but it works, and it’s worked for his entire Major League career. O’Day is the rare drop-down pitcher who doesn’t really have much of a platoon split, and that’s because he doesn’t really try to get groundballs. If his fastball was down, lefties would crush him. Up out of the zone, though, he can get swinging strikes just based on location, and his willingness to use his slider to get ahead in the count keeps hitters off balance.

Most fastball/slider pitchers use the heater to get ahead and the slider as the put away pitch. O’Day does it backwards, and it works really well. When broadcasters talk about how pitching is disrupting a batter’s timing, this is what they’re talking about. O’Day has pedestrian stuff and delivers it from an angle that should make him prone to left-handers, but the way he mixes his pitches and the locations he puts them in allow him to be a relief ace and not just a match-up righty.

Even after throwing 30 pitches last night, Buck Showalter won’t be afraid to use O’Day tonight, as Game 5 is an “all hands on deck” situation. He’ll almost certainly go with Brian Matusz and Troy Patton in critical situations against left-handers, but he shouldn’t be afraid to turn to O’Day either. O’Day’s funky delivery notwithstanding, he’s more capable than most at getting left-handed hitters out.