SARASOTA, FLA. — Submarine pitchers are a different breed. From their quirky deliveries to the grips, release points and arm actions they use, few aspects of the way they pitch translate to the conventional overhand thrower.
Orioles right-hander Darren O'Day — who has pitched to a 2.23 ERA as a dependable late-inning reliever over the past two seasons — is the perfect example.
Over his career, O'Day has relied on a sinker and slider combination to get hitters out. He's tried to develop a changeup in the past, but hasn't been comfortable enough to throw it during a pressure situation in a game.
"I've tried pretty much every changeup grip you can think of," O'Day said. "Guys who throw overhand tell me, this is how you throw it. But I always tell them, 'I don't throw like you.' I don't try to show you how to throw a curveball."
So, Orioles manager Buck Showalter turned to someone who might be able to help. This offseason, he called former Orioles submariner Todd Frohwirth, who still works in the organization as a major league scout, and invited him to spring training to work with O'Day. Frohwirth arrived in Sarasota on Monday and will work with O'Day throughout this week.
"I know this pitch could really help Darren against left-handed pitching," Showalter said. "We have this great resource who had a great pitch like that. I talked to [pitching coach] Dave [Wallace] and asked him how he felt about it, and he liked it a lot. Todd thought it would be really important for [O'Day] to build up his arm strength and arm speed before he got here. That's why you didn't see him here earlier."
O'Day said he's maybe thrown four changeups over the course of his career. He's always toyed with the pitch and said he had a serviceable one, but he hasn't thrown it in a game since his rookie year of 2008.
"In the situations I'm in, you're not working on stuff out there," said O'Day, who has been primarily used in close seventh- and eighth-inning situations. "You're trying to win games. … The only thing I haven't tried is learning the changeup from someone who threw submarine and had a good changeup."
Enter Frohwirth, a 51-year-old who pitched nine seasons in the big leagues, including three with the Orioles. Frohwirth had great success with the Orioles using the changeup to get left-handed hitters out. In 1991 and 1992, he held lefties to a .235 batting average.
"For me, the changeup can come a lot of different ways," Frohwirth said. "Is it the BP fastball? Is it a touch and feel fastball? What is it exactly? We can call it a changeup, but we can get there a lot of different ways. How soft are we going to soften it?
"The best thing about Darren is that he's able to command the ball on both sides of the plate, which I feel I was able to do back in the day. A lot of submariners can only command the inside to righties, but he's got great command on both sides, so he's able to set up then whatever he decides his changeup is going to be. He's got the tools to set it up."
O'Day hasn't needed the changeup in the past to get left-handed hitters out. In his career, lefties his .250 against him and in 2012, his first season with the Orioles, he held lefties to a stingy .205 average.
But last season, left-handers hit .309 off O'Day, compared to .154 versus right-handed hitters. O'Day said that was more because he struggled locating his backdoor slider and his sinker down and away, allowing hitters to sit on his fastball.
"Having more weapons in the arsenal is always a good thing," O'Day said. "Yeah, it would help me. I've never had one so I don't know what it's like. … I know a lot of submarine guys use it. They don't feature it or anything. It's not their best pitch, but it would be nice to have, especially since I pitch up in the zone with my fastball. Having a changeup that's down in the zone would make me even more effective, but I know I can get lefties out without it."
Developing a third pitch could also be the difference between O'Day being a set-up man and possibly getting the opportunity to become a closer, like former submariners Dan Quisenberry and Kent Tekulve, who both used the pitch to help them close out games.
Frohwirth — whose arm angle is slightly lower than O'Day's — learned from Tekulve, who was a teammate of his with the Philadelphia Phillies, and Quisenberry, who was a pioneering submariner reliever in the 1980s.
"The grip was always different for each of them," Frohwirth said. "I think it's all about feel and trust. Once you do it and come up with whatever you believe your changeup is, to get out there and actually throw it and see the reactions of the batter. When you're a reliever, most of the time you're a two-pitch guy. He's a great sinker, slider reliever.
"Now, he's trying to turn his career into something even more special than what it already is. … Once he starts throwing it in tough situations and starts seeing the results from it, it gets better and you just build confidence. That's what happened to me. I just tried it. I kept trying to soften the ball and I just kept getting better results."
On Monday, Frohwirth and O'Day stood in the outfield during batting practice, getting to know each other and talking about pitching. O'Day sat down with Frohwirth and dissected some of his old game film on Tuesday and on Wednesday, O'Day planned to throw some changeups in the bullpen as Frohwirth watched.
"It's a little different in terms of the physics of throwing like that, and for a guy who threw a changeup from there it's a lot more helpful than a guy who hasn't thrown like that," O'Day said. Still, everybody has a little bit of variation, but it's close enough. We're all a little different. He's got a good approach to pitching. It's different and it's exciting to have someone come here who's done it."
O'Day, 31, said being able to throw a changeup he's comfortable with in a game would not only help him against left-handers, but also right-handed hitters.
"It would probably make it a little bit easier, give them something more to think about," O'Day said. "I think that would make me a better pitcher for sure. … I've been pretty successful against lefties, even against righties. When you face someone like [Boston Red Sox second baseman] Dustin Pedroia five times a year and you're like, 'What can I throw this guy that he hasn't seen twice already?' having another weapon would be nice."
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