When Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos signed Darren Oliver in January for a guaranteed $4.5 million, it represented the largest free agent contract handed out in his two-plus years at the helm. Now nearly halfway through the season, Oliver has been worth every penny.
Through 31 appearances this season, Oliver has allowed just 18 hits and compiled a tidy 1.65 ERA/2.80 FIP in 27 1/3 innings. He’s on pace to trim his ERA for the sixth consecutive season, and his 0.915 WHIP and team-best 5.9 hits per nine innings are both career lows. His 30 strikeouts are good for a 9.9 K/9 which, if he manages to sustain that strikeout rate over the second half of the season, would be a new full-season career high.
So what has contributed to Oliver posting career-best numbers in his 18th major league season?
Pitchers are told to pound the zone early in at-bats to get ahead in the count, and relievers get paid to throw strikes. Oliver has done that better in his first season with the Blue Jays than any other in his career, as according to FanGraphs, he’s throwing first-pitch strikes a whopping 69.5% of the time — his highest mark since 2008 when he was with the Angels and easily a new career high. Among relievers that have thrown at least 20 innings, Oliver’s first-pitch strike rate ranks second-highest in the American League and fourth-highest in baseball.
Since missing all of the 2005 season and returning to the majors as a full-time reliever in 2006, Oliver has always pitched better at home in his five-plus seasons out of the bullpen and, for the most part, pitched better against left-handed hitters. This season with the Blue Jays, however, things are reversed.
While Oliver has limited left-handed hitters to a respectable .229 average and .643 OPS, right-handers have managed merely seven hits against the southpaw all season for a .149 average and .422 OPS. Oliver’s slider against right-handed hitters has been particularly intriguing this season, as he does not use it often, but it’s effective when used. Just ask Torii Hunter about it after whiffing on two of them last night.
Even though he hasn’t allowed an extra-base hit at home this season, Oliver has better stats on the road, where the bulk of his workload has come. While he’s limited opposing hitters to a .243 average and .577 OPS in 10 innings at home this season, he’s held the opposition to a .155 average and .503 OPS in 17 1/3 innings on the road. Prior to his outing last night against the Angels at Rogers Centre, Oliver had thrown almost twice as many innings on the road than he had at home.
Despite adding four relievers over the off-season in an effort to address their bullpen woes, the Blue Jays have the second-worst bullpen in the American League this season, thanks largely in part to the struggles of their starting rotation struggles and an injury to closer Sergio Santos.
Oliver has been one of the few bright spots on the Blue Jays’ pitching staff and, like a fine wine, has gotten better with age over the years. Surely Anthopoulos & Co. — as well as the other 29 teams around baseball — have taken notice of the 41-year-old’s dependability this season, and it seems likely that the organization will exercise his $3 million club option for the 2013 campaign as a result.