You know when you’re watching a movie and you see ‘that guy?’ The surly beat cop. The troubled scientist. The grizzled war general. The character actor. They do not land glamorous roles, they’re never stars but they come up again and again in similar roles across mediums (The King? Clint Howard. He’s my all time favorite. Or this guy.). These actors and actresses make a living doing small but crucial roles in a larger scheme. We have lots of character actors in baseball. For every Albert Pujols, there is an Alex Cora. We give them monikers like ‘character guys,’ ‘defensive specialists’ and, in some sports ‘glue’ guys. I would like to take a moment to recognize one of the finest character actors we have in sports today, Mr. Darren Oliver, lefthander extraordinaire.
Oliver is about to sign with the Blue Jays on a 1-year deal. When he does, it will mark the start of his 19th season in the MLB. Oliver is such an interesting case to me. Proof, if you will, that every left-handed child should learn to throw a curveball. Oliver was a mediocre but effective back-end starter for those Rangers teams in the late 90’s when they time and time again failed to defeat the Yankees despite putting up video game numbers on offense (actually, he threw a really nice start in game 3 of the ALDS against the soon-to-be World Series Champs Yanks, poor Braves). But his mediocrity caught up to him and by 2005, he was not signed to a major league team. By then, he had become a 6th starter, a swingman. Starting games and mopping up messes. Then he wised up and became a situational lefty. There are very few careers in the world so beautifully, specifically designed.
And this is when and why I find him so endlessly delightful. You can see here in some sortable stats and pretty-colored charts that Oliver is rarely touching 90 on the radar gun. There is something undeniably fun about seeing major league batters pop up on an 80 mph fastball and clearly mouth some truly foul expletives as they head back to the dugout. It humanizes them. There’s no solid logic for what makes Oliver so effective as a reliever. Barely throwing swiftly, let alone hard, Oliver gets the job done time after time out of the pen. He held lefties to a .225 batting average in 2011 and had the same batting average against with men on base last year. He is the consummate ‘crafty lefty.’ Straight out of baseball’s central casting. He’ll never sign a deal for $25 million a year, but Oliver and guys like him win championships and don’t go away easily. Congratulations, Mr. Oliver. Your fastball-slider combo gives hope to every high school lefty worrying that, while it might send you back in time, 88 mile per hour won’t get you to the big show.