Yes, you read it right. Forty-one-year-old left-hander Darren Oliver recently agreed to a one-year deal with a club option for 2013 with the Toronto Blue Jays. You probably are asking the same question I used to ask when I first broke in to the big leagues. How does this guy, or anyone for that matter, get anyone out at 41 years old?
Well, it starts by putting ego aside and taking a lot of humble pie.
When I first broke in, there were a few Darren Olivers. Off the top of my head, I think of Tony Fossas or Rick Honeycutt. Come to think of it, ask any young right-handed hitter who was fighting for a starting job and they had a bunch of pitchers like Oliver on video because odds are, they were probably pinch hitting against them a couple of times a week.
These left-handed specialists are brought in to get lefties out as task No. 1. So as a right-handed hitter who may get called into duty late in the game, you are the guy who faces Oliver when your manager pinch hits you for the left-handed pinch hitter who was just used. I know it sounds messy, but in the age of constant lefty-righty matchups, eventually someone has to hit and someone has to pitch and it usually works out that the right-handed hitter faces the left-handed pitcher. See Darren Oliver.
More specifically, they usually have one pitch that drives you bananas. It is particularly nasty on left-handed hitters, like Jesse Orosco's sweeping curveball that starts in the on-deck circle, but that wasn't that nice on righties either. But pitchers like Oliver who last forever have a little something-something for righties, too. Maybe a "dead fish inside a wet newspaper" changeup or some funk-ball splitter whose bottom drops out at that last minute.
The crazy thing is that every once in a while pitchers like Oliver twist you up by starting a game here and there. You say, "How in the world is this guy going to get more than two hitters out?" But then I faced those guys for a career, too. I faced Fernando Valenzuela. I faced Sterling Hitchcock. I faced Kirk Rueter. And while they did not light up the radar gun, I found myself with a nice collection of toothpicks on many occasions after an at-bat.
Pitching is about throwing to a target first and foremost. I remember that line more than anything I heard from super GM guru Syd Thrift. Throwing strikes has nothing to do with it. And pitchers like Oliver do that as well as anyone else, which is just one reason they keep getting jobs. Forget about walks and ERA, they really just need to make one pitch in one moment and then they have jobs at the age of 41.
A young hitter has to quickly learn that to survive in the big leagues, you have to hit the fastball. Major league pitchers will eat you alive if you can't. But for the most part, that is a given skill. That is expected. Next you have to lay off the junk, the off-speed pitches that are thrown just as much to set you up as they are to get you out.
This is where the ego management comes in. You would hear from the dugout at least once a game, "Challenge somebody," after a pitcher threw a fourth straight changeup. Sure, there were times when a pitcher may have been scared to death, but there were many times he was challenging you to have a plan at the plate. And if you didn't have one, you chased yet another pitch you didn't want in the first place. Advantage, Oliver.
Pitchers like Oliver live off of that idea. Make the hitter hit your pitch. Make the hitter swing from sheer impatience. We call it "getting yourself out," but many times they are the ones getting you out by using your ego and impatience against you.
After thousands of major league at-bats, I found that any pitcher that can hit a spot with good movement, a good plan, and a good sense of what hitters are thinking can have a lot of success for a long time.
It is how the tortoise beats the hare every time. The fastball- hitting ego hitter gets up there knowing there is no way someone who tops out at 91 mph can get them out. They think they have too much time to stop for coffee in between fastballs. Then they fall for the oldest trick in the book. The one led by your own overconfidence.
I remember facing Darren Oliver when he was starting for the Marlins. In one particular game, I was hitting eighth in the order for the Phillies, and there was a runner in scoring position early in the contest. He could have just walked me, which was the textbook way to do things with the pitcher on deck. He took a chance after he got ahead and I slapped a base hit to right field to drive in the run. My manager, Larry Bowa, said at the time, "Not sure why he played with fire there with the pitcher on deck. Should have walked you." I agreed, but then I later realized, Oliver will walk you anyway, might as well see if you make an out while he is doing it.
After thousands of major league at-bats, I found that any pitcher that can hit a spot with good movement, a good plan and a good sense of what hitters are thinking can have a lot of success for a long time. That is not to say it is easy, but that when you already have the ability and have seen major league hitters for many years, you can do very well and keep your career going.
I would rather face a power pitcher every day of the week and twice on Sunday when it came to seeing the ball and hitting the ball. Those power guys tap your reaction time, your quick hands, your inner ego. They don't always make you think. And waiting is one of the hardest things any hitter can do.
So let Darren Oliver play until he's 50. It's not a sign that there isn't a young pitcher out there who can throw a ball through a brick wall who's also left-handed. It's actually a sign that the game still respects that every pitch is a situation that can be won and you don't have to be young or throw hard to end up on the winning side of it.
Let's have a New Year's toast to Jamie Moyer, Bob Patterson, Mike Myers, Brian Bohanon, Jim Abbott, Craig Lefferts, John Franco and all of the other pitchers like Darren Oliver. I salute you and if you have any splinters from my bats, please send them back.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLB Players Alumni Association. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville