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November 2, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Why Darren Oliver Might Really Retire This Time

by Sam Miller

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We love baseball, all of us, but it can be exhausting, too. There are so many games. The games only matter in that they lead to other, more exclusive games. Then, once those games are played, we wait a few months and we start over, with more games. For you, it’s a hobby and a diversion. But imagine it’s your job, and all these pointless games just pile up on each other, each one bringing a new chance for you to fail in front of everybody. How long until it stopped being fun? 

Darren Oliver is 42 years old. The Blue Jays just picked up his $3 million option for 2013, but he’s said to be leaning toward retirement. Many times in his career he has been leaning toward retirement, but this one is a bit different for two reasons: He’s really, really good; and it sounds like he might mean it.

He has friends back home who have “just a normal life.” A big part of him yearns for that. His kids are at “a crucial age,” he adds.

“My kids just want me home. They want their dad. If I was a kid, I’d be saying the same thing too.”

Darren Oliver has the job you wish your dad had had, but his kids just want him home. It almost makes you wonder how anybody makes it to 42 without retiring. 

The first time he nearly retired.
Eighteen times in his career, Oliver started a game and didn’t allow a run. Three of those 18, though, were interrupted before the second inning by injuries, and that was the case on Aug. 5, 2004. Oliver pitched a perfect first, then left with shoulder tightness. By the time he was healthy enough to return, the minor-league schedule was over, and Oliver couldn’t go on a rehab stint. He pitched in relief for the final two weeks of the season, allowing runs in all four outings. He ended that season with a 5.94 ERA; with a  5.07 career ERA; with 87 career wins and 1,407 career innings. “He's 34 now and isn't going to be Jamie Moyer, so it's just a matter of how many ERAs in the 5.00s it takes to push him out of the league,” we wrote in that year’s annual.*

The Rockies signed him before spring training, he got attacked by bees, and the Rockies released him. The Diamondbacks signed him in April, and released him. The Cubs signed him in May, and released him, and from May 20 on he was unemployed. He pitched 32 minor-league innings that year, all as a starter. He gave up 34 runs, including 20 in 13 innings for for Iowa; the Iowa Cubs’ web site ran a headline calling his first start “The Mother’s Day Massacre."

Put it this way: he was the oldest pitcher on his PCL team, and he was the worst pitcher on his PCL team.

This is what is now referred to in profiles as Darren Oliver’s semi-retirement. It’s not clear he was ever really retired, though. He wasn’t working, and he didn’t seem to expect to work. He got a little fat, and when the Winter Meetings were held near his home that offseason and his agent invited him for drinks, he went just to see what the Winter Meetings were like. But it also didn’t take much to get him back. It took two Mets executives who joined him for those drinks and asked if he could still throw. He agreed to a minor-league contract, went on a diet, and made the team out of Spring Training, earning $600,000.

"I don't think I was ready to quit, but in this game you never really walk away when you want to, on your own terms," Oliver said. "You usually get pushed out and there's no job there for you. That's just the way sports is and I was really thankful that I got another chance."

The second time he nearly retired.
So that’s the guy who would go on to become one of the four most successful relievers in baseball. Oh, maybe he’s never been the guy you would pick at any given moment. To pick a random date: if you had needed a reliever for three outs on July 14, 2012, you’d probably would have gone with Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Sergio Romo, and Fernando Rodney before Oliver. On Sept. 9, 2010, you would rather have had Hong-Chih Kuo, Joaquin Benoit, Billy Wagner, and Mariano Rivera. But relievers are flaky, and they're fluky, and few of them stay healthy and successful enough to string together a run like Darren Oliver has had over the past five seasons. His ERA+ trails just three pitchers—Rivera, Mike Adams, and Scott Downs—since the start of 2008. He had the seventh-best ERA+ ever by a 39-year-old; the third-best ever by a 40-year-old; and the third-best ever by a 41-year-old.

And he’s getting better. His ERA, which was already pretty good in 2007, has gone down every year since. Only nine other pitchers since World War II have lowered their ERAs in five consecutive seasons (minimum 40 innings) (and an admittedly gimmicky measure). The oldest of the nine was 35 years old when his streak ended; Oliver was 37 years old when his began.

Yes, he has faced a higher percentage of lefties as he has aged,

Year Percentage Lefties
2007 37%
2008 41%
2009 42%
2010 46%
2011 44%
2012 48%
Total 43%

but there’s not much to suggest that’s all (or any) of what’s causing his improvement, as righties’ .243/.306/.334 line against him over the past five seasons is only a glimmer better than lefties’ .231/.278/.349 line. And most of the difference in those lines is attributable to intentional walks; remove those, and the OBP gap drops by half.
And, yes, his ERA is more impressive than his FIP, but it’s been five years in a row that he has managed that, and his FIP is still quite low: 18th-best among relievers over the past three seasons, out of about 200 relievers who have thrown at least 100 innings.

Yet twice during this stretch he has hinted at retirement. After 2010: “Whether he will play in 2011, Oliver said, will be the subject of a future family roundtable.” After 2011:  “I talked to my kids the other day. It was kind of funny. (Brock) thinks if I told (Maxwell) that I was only going to play one more year, he might be OK with it, because he could see the light at the end of the tunnel.” And after 2012, he told John Lott that “every kid needs a father at home.”

This time that he is considering retirement.
Darren Oliver’s dad, Bob Oliver, was a baseball player. Bob’s last year in the majors was in 1975, the year Darren turned five. The older Oliver played just 18 games that year, and he hit .132/.154/.158 with the Yankees, but he didn’t give up his career. He spent the next year, when Darren was 6, playing with the Phillies’ Triple-A team. (He hit .325.) He spent the next year, when Darren was 7, playing with the Pirates’ Triple-A team. (He hit .277.) He spent the next year, when Darren was 8, playing with the White Sox’ Triple-A team. (He hit .208.) And still he kept going. He spent the next year playing in Mexico, for a team in Veracruz that went 48-85. (Coincidentally, one of his teammates was Ron Washington, Darren’s manager many years later.) There's no amazing comeback; just a guy hanging on.

There’s something admirable about hanging on like that, but the closer you get to it the more melancholy it is, too. That’s not where Darren Oliver is in his career—anymore. You can understand the desire to get out, to be the rare player who does walk away when he wants to.

“The younger one doesn’t want me to keep hanging on, hanging on, hanging on,” Darren Oliver said last offseason. That son was nine years old when Darren Oliver said that—the same age Darren was when Bob Oliver finally quit.

*I had a hard time deciding which of the many ironic-in-retrospect statements from our past to quote. I chose the Moyer one, but this one is also delightful, from 2005: “While Oliver may be as overripe as a sandwich you left in the car over a hot weekend, his ability to keep hanging around is proof that some people will eat anything.”

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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