SARASOTA, FLA. — For Orioles reliever Darren O'Day, perfecting the changeup has been a project nearly a decade in the making.
O'Day's submarine delivery — which gives his other pitches late life — makes getting a feel for the offspeed pitch tricky. The wrist movement and grip that it involves is much more free and easy when delivered with an over-the-top motion.
Still, O'Day tinkers with the pitch annually during spring training. It's the one chance he has to see how hitters react to its change of speed. This spring, he feels more comfortable with the changeup than he ever has, and hopes to use as a fourth pitch.
Last year — after left-handers hit .309 off O'Day in 2013 — the Orioles brought in submariner Todd Frohwirth to work with O'Day on the changeup. Left-handers hit just .189 against O'Day in 2014, but he credited better location for the improvement, not the new pitch, which he said he threw just a handful of times before abandoning.
According to FanGraphs, the changeup accounted for just 1 percent of the pitches O'Day threw last season. Instead, he stuck to his bread-and-butter arsenal of a four-seam fastball, sinker and slider.
"He got close to being confident in it last year, and Todd was great and he had a great one," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "But every one of those guys is different. ... I don't care how good you feel about it down here, the first couple times you use it in the big leagues and you don't get a return from it, good luck."
O'Day really didn't need the changeup last season. He had a career-best 1.70 ERA and posted a 5-2 record in the set-up role, allowing just 42 hits over 68 2/3 relief innings. He averaged more than a strikeout an inning (9.6 per nine) and issued just 19 walks.
O'Day realizes he could be even more effective if he's able to add the changeup to his arsenal, and his focus this spring is becoming confident enough to use it regularly.
"Last year was the first year I really had the chance to use it in a game," O'Day said. "They brought Frohwirth in and he taught me some of the mechanics. It wasn't ready for the season last year. But I've had a year to mess with it and tinker with it. I think this is the best it's ever been at this point in the season.
"It's getting better. It's a good pitch. I've just got to be more consistent with it. It's like any other pitch. It's a work in progress still. I still have a couple weeks. There are some positive signs, for sure."
Showalter has noticed that O'Day has more confidence with the changeup this spring.
"It's a little different one than the one he had last year," Showalter said. "He's tinkered with it. And knowing Darren, I know he's tinkered with it from the time the season ended until now. … It would be a nice weapon for him.
"I lot of guys (with his stuff) would have a nice living and do well and be able to pitch until they're 40, which he [can]. But Darren wants to be more than that."
In O'Day's first spring outing on March 5 against the Toronto Blue Jays, he used a heavy dose of changeups — and no sliders — to strike out the side in his only inning. One of those strikeouts came on a swing-and-miss on the changeup. Since then, he's started to incorporate all of his pitches, but has thrown the changeup two-to-three times more than he normally would.
"It's a balancing act," O'Day said. "You've got to still get ready for the season but you want to try to work on stuff, too. Going forward it will probably be all three or four pitches, kind of a more even distribution because we've still got a couple weeks. Probably the last week, I'll go back to normal distribution."
O'Day said he's worked on the changeup since his first year in pro ball in 2006. The scout who signed O'Day, Tom Kotchman, was also his manager in short-season rookie ball and told him that he only had to stay at that level long enough to learn a changeup.
"So I learned a good enough changeup and he let me go after five weeks and I went to low Class-A," O'Day said. "It's been 10 years in the making."
O'Day knows that every year should include something new to keep opposing hitters guessing and he realizes that adding the changeup can be a difference maker for him.
"You face guys 10 times in a season and they've seen all I've got … so I think it can give guys more to think about," O'Day said. "You can always get better. If you're not getting better right now, you're getting worse. It's something to get better at."