Tao’s 37 Jays in 37 days: Darren Oliver

Who: Darren Oliver, No. 38, left-handed relief pitcher, 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, 42-years old.

Provenance: Oliver was born in Kansas City. He graduated from Rio Lindo, California. Up Sacramento Way. Oliver was drafted in the third round of the 1988 amateur draft by the Texas Rangers.

Acquired: Signed as a free agent by the Blue Jays in January 2012.

Contract status: The Blue Jays exercised his $3-million club option in October of 2012. Hilarity ensued. Oliver’s a free agent after the 2013 season.

Back of the baseball card: 4.53 ERA in 716 games over 19 seasons with Texas, St. Louis, Texas, Boston, Colorado, Florida, Houston, the Mets, Angels, Texas (yup) and Toronto. He’s pitched 1866.2 innings, struck out 5.88 batters per nine (15%) and walked 3.40 (8.7%).

2012 stats: Oliver continued his late career resurgence with a 2.06 ERA in 62 games (56.2 innings), marking the sixth consecutive season he lowered his ERA. He struck out 23.5 per cent of batters faced (8.26 per nine innings) and walked 6.8 per cent (2.38).

2012 repertoire, as per Brooks Baseball: Four seam fastball (59%, 88.6 MPH average); Curve (24%, 76.12 MPH); Sinker (16%, 89.41 MPH); Changeup (threw 12 all year, 83.68 MPH).

Recent injury history: Oliver missed a month or so in 2004 and had a 15-day stint on the disabled list in 2009. Nothing since. He had Tommy John Surgery in May of 1991.

Looking back: It’s probably unfair that the memory of Darren Oliver that most Jays fans will carry in to the 2013 season is of the off-season contract communications snafus that became fodder for a few weeks.

It was certainly confusing, and many nasty things were hurled in the direction of the mostly affable middle-reliever. If nothing else, it reminded us of the existence of Jeff Frye. It probably also took some of the shine off that time he hit for the cycle.

Regardless, one would be hard-pressed to quibble with the results that he produced in 2012. Oliver was nasty against all hitters, stranding 84.8 per cent of runners and holding batters to a .213 batting average against.

Oliver was tough on lefties, holding them to a .314 OBP and .330 slugging, but he was even tougher against righties (.252 OBP and a minuscule .262 slugging).

Looking ahead: It’s hard to resist all of old saws about the value of veteran leadership. Given that Oliver had his ulnar collateral ligament swapped out when Marcus Stroman was five weeks old, one would think he has some perspective on the game to share to two generations of ballplayers coming through Toronto.

Moreover, Oliver made playoff appearances in six straight seasons from 2006 through 2011, so the hope would be that he could provide some ballast when the tides of the season begin to toss the good ship Blue Jays about.

But the expectations on Oliver are — and should be — far more tangible than that. He’s not just a cheerleader playing out the string, and to compete in what will be an extraordinarily tight American League this season, the Jays need him to maintain his current streak as one of the most quietly effective relievers in baseball.

Pessimistically: This is the season when time and age finally catch up with Oliver, and maybe he becomes a decent left-handed specialist. The Jays might need to manage his workload to get him through the season.

Optimistically: Posts a sub-2.00 ERA, pitches some of the most important high-leverage innings down the stretch in the midst of a pennant chase.

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