The Atlanta Braves brought back Darren O’Day in the hope that he could again prove to be a reliable relief option while providing leadership in the bullpen. However, his season was ultimately cut short due to a calf strain.
The Braves signed O’Day last November to a minor league deal that also included an invite to Spring Training. It was to be O’Day’s third stint with the club: he was acquired in a trade in mid-2018, re-signed with the Braves after his contract expired ahead of the 2020 season, and spent 2021 in the Yankees organization.
What were the expectations?
O’Day had a brief run with the Braves from 2018-2020 where he pitched well in very limited opportunities due to injuries and the shortened pandemic season. He compiled 0.4 fWAR in 21 2⁄3 innings in those two seasons, and then went to the Yankees, where he threw a forgettable 10 2⁄3 innings in 2021. The thinking was that he might be able to provide some quality relief work, particularly against right-handed hitters, while being a solid presence in the clubhouse.
That said, O’Day has been injured so incredibly frequently over the past few years that there was little expectation he’d actually be available for a substantial workload. Including 2022, he’s pitched just 74 major league innings in the past five calendar years. So, the expectation was that he’d probably be reasonably effective... but also missing in action for most of the year.
O’Day went to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee, but earned his way onto the Opening Day roster. A season-ending injury to Luke Jackson may have helped open the door for O’Day, but there was a strong possibility that he would have broken camp with the club at any rate.
O’Day allowed one run through six appearances in April (with elite peripherals), but allowed six runs (five earned) over his next eight appearances in May (with awful peripherals). He started to settle back in during June and allowed just four more earned runs over his next 14 appearances (with middling peripherals).
O’Day was placed on the Injured List on July 13 with a calf strain, which also coincided with Kenley Jansen’s return from the shelf after dealing with an irregular heartbeat. He began a rehab assignment on August 5 and worked his way back to Triple-A, but was shut down again after suffering a sprained toe. The team transferred him to the 60-day Injured List on September 1, effectively ending his season.
For the season, O’Day ended up pitching 21 2⁄3 innings with a disappointing 101 ERA-, 103 FIP-, 104 xFIP- line. He did manage contact well, leading to a great xwOBA/xERA, but walked too many guys in his limited opportunities to really have a good year.
What went right? What went wrong?
As a 39-year old pitcher coming off an injury-riddled season in New York, O’Day was able to parlay a Spring Training invite with Atlanta into another stint on the major league roster. He was no doubt aided by expanded rosters for the first part of the season, but he couldn’t have really hoped for much more.
The injury issues robbed him of any chance to play a part of the team’s run down the stretch, and it was looking like he might be the odd man out when the calf injury occurred. O’Day was lauded for his leadership in the bullpen during his first stint with the team and he did stick around after the injury to assist in game planning down the stretch.
At this point, what has continually gone wrong for O’Day is that he just can’t stay on the field. Going back to 2018, he’s been sidelined with: elbow impingement, hamstring strain, forearm strain, rotator cuff strain, hamstring strain (again, same hamstring), and 2022’s calf strain. His unorthodox delivery remains tough on righties, and he held them to a 2.57 FIP and 3.60 xFIP this past year, but he’s got nothing to really attack lefties with, which makes life tough in a league that maintains the three-batter-minimum rule. The problem is that O’Day goes sinker-slider to righties and four-seamer-slider to lefties; the slider still breaks towards a lefty hitter, so he’s outmatched from the get-go.
Still, O’Day had some nice games this past year. On June 4, he had his best outing in a high-leverage situation, throwing a 1-2-3 frame at Coors Field for the bottom of the ninth in a tie game. (Fortunately, the Rockies lined up three righties for him to work his magic.) Here’s him striking out Yonathan Daza for the first out of that inning, a good example of what O’Day can still do against righties despite throwing his “hard” stuff in the mid-80s:
Occasionally, he got one over on a lefty as well. On June 13, he entered a three-run game, and despite putting the first two men on to bring the tying run to the plate, escaped his own jam, by sacrificing his body to get the out at first base:
But, sadly, O’Day got into a lot more trouble in 2022 than he escaped. He had a whopping nine meltdowns in just 28 appearances, to go with just three shutdowns. (That’s very bad. So bad.)
June 26 was especially awful. That was the game where the Dodgers barely tied the game in the ninth off former mate Kenley Jansen with a sub-70 mph flare just over Matt Olson’s glove. After both teams scored a run in the tenth, and with the Braves running out of relievers, having used five to that point already, O’Day came on to face L-R-R-R-L-R for the top of the 11th. He actually retired the first batter (Gavin Lux) on a very deep flyout despite a 3-1 count (thanks, Michael Harris II, who made a great catch), but then got victimized by Austin Riley failing to snare another low flare down the line, and later gave up a hard-hit single up the middle to Trea Turner. The Braves would not score again and lose by that 5-3 count.
And then there was May 18, which was just awful all around. After the Braves took a lead on the Brewers in the top of the 10th, O’Day was asked to face Christian Yelich to start the innin with the tying run on second. It went like this, on an 0-2 count, no less:
The Brewers later tied the game on a sacrifice fly, and walked it off with a homer off Jesse Chavez later.
O’Day is a free agent again this offseason. If he isn’t ready to call it quits, then he will likely have to take a similar path as he did in 2022, trying to earn his way onto a roster through a minor league deal that comes with a Spring Training invite. He isn’t projected to do anything more than provide replacement-level relief at this point, and it’d be surprising if he manages to throw more than 25 innings or so in his age-40 season after failing to exceed the 22-inning mark in any of the past five years.