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Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle still doesn’t look right

Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle still doesn’t look right

Sean Doolittle’s six September appearances have produced a 1.80 ERA. Opponents are hitting just .063 against him. Yet, something’s not right.

The eye test suggests it when outfielders drift deep toward the wall to catch fly balls. Sounds suggest it, too, when squared-up pitches come off the opponent’s bat. His ERA and batting average against, however, do not, and if they are not telling an outright lie, they are at least delivering a modest fib.

Doolittle’s time away from the team was supposed to rejuvenate his arm and brain. His velocity dipped, his ERA spiked and he couldn’t find a fix for what was happening. Doolittle was open -- as always -- with the media when saying repeatedly fatigue had become a factor in his season. Despite a truncated and altered exercise program in between appearances, he remained tired. 

Earlier in the season, when Doolittle’s fastball still had its standard zip, he did run into a temporary lull as part of the late-May debacle in Flushing. He looked for answers in the video from April and May of 2018. What he promptly saw was a more upright version of himself. Doolittle realized he was “top-heavy” because his shoulders curled and his momentum went toward first base instead of home plate. Such movement causes both the deception from and speed of his fastball to dwindle.

The toe-tap part of his delivery has lived its own life this season. Controversy and irritation were launched when Chicago manager Joe Maddon suggested the move was illegal. Doolittle mocked him during his protest, then stopped using it against the Cubs in the inning just to prove a point. He later shelved it before bringing it back in September when he returned from the injured list (right knee tendinitis).

Also part of his return was Davey Martinez’s repeated stance Doolittle needs to operate as the team’s closer for it to be at full strength. Doolittle is yet to be used in such a demanding role in September. The reason may be his underlying numbers, the ones which tell a story opposite his front-facing ones.

Doolittle’s average fastball release speed has been on the downswing since June when it peaked this season at 94.2 mph. July followed at 93.6 mph. August matched July, however, Doolittle was pummeled during the month, leading to his injured list stint and trek for answers. His average release speed is 92.76 mph since he returned -- its lowest point since last September’s 92.92 mph and the lowest since he joined the Nationals following a July 16, 2017 trade. He has spent the entire season below an average of 95 mph for the first time since 2015. He started that season on the injured list because of a shoulder injury and threw just 13 ⅔ innings -- almost all from late August to September.

Another velocity average is also of note since his September return: average exit velocity. Doolittle has allowed just a hit in five innings since coming back. But, much of the contact against him has been hard. The first batter Doolittle faced in September, Martin Prado, flew out to the warning track. In his Sept. 15 appearance, three balls in play averaged 98.9 mph. 

Another way to explain what is currently happening against Doolittle is through swings and misses. In April, when he was fresh, 16 percent of Doolittle’s pitches resulted in swings and misses. In September, 9.8 percent of Doolittle’s pitches have produced swings and misses. In April, none of his 12 appearances included an outing with zero swings and misses. It has happened three times in six September appearances.

Also pivoting is the view of Doolittle’s future in Washington. It has moved from a slam dunk to him working so much free agency was possible, to slightly clouded. The team holds a $6.5 million option on Doolittle this offseason. His early performance made the option’s outcome obvious. The end of the year has caused it to be rethought. Did the Nationals push their closer so hard he’s worn out to the point of not returning?

For now, Doolittle is focused on finding a way to get outs during the final week-plus. After that, the postseason could be next. Then, ultimately, the offseason decision-making will arrive and the organization needs to decide if an extended winter break will return their closer to who he was and they need him to be.

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Nationals are again headliners at baseball’s Winter Meetings

Nationals are again headliners at baseball’s Winter Meetings

SAN DIEGO -- Sunday’s rain and clouds pushed temperatures down into the 60s in San Diego. Long jackets and faces were out because of the “winter” weather settling just off the harbor. Crossed arms and raised hoods identified the natives walking down the street trying to manage the rare coolness in one of America’s sunniest cities.

Inside the Manchester Grand Hyatt on the edge of San Diego’s waterfront, signage and bustle alerted everyone to what would begin Monday: Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings were set to open. And, for the second consecutive year, the Washington Nationals are among the preeminent players.

Last year was about Bryce Harper. Loquacious agent Scott Bora stood atop a camera box and in front of a 25-foot tall Christmas tree in the middle of a Las Vegas casino to talk Harper then. The setting could not have been intentionally arranged better. Showmanship, exaggeration, out-sizedness all accompanied Boras’ address last year. He again controls the market heading into this year’s session. 

Former -- for now -- Washington Nationals players Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg are among the headliners at the Winter Meetings. They, like everyone else, are waiting on Gerrit Cole. Projections have the New York Yankees checking the coffers for perhaps up to $280 million in order to sign Cole. Once that ends, the futures for Strasburg and Rendon should be hurled forward -- particularly Strasburg.

He’s met with Anaheim, Los Angeles and New York, according to reports. Mike Rizzo seemed unconcerned about those meetings when recently asked if they had talked to Rendon or Strasburg. Rizzo noted the organization has been chatting with both for the better part of a decade.

Also looming over the proceedings are recent comments by Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner. He stated the team can only afford Rendon or Strasburg. Not both. This puts Rizzo in a contorted position for the second consecutive season. Last year, Lerner said he thought Harper moved on. Rizzo soon followed at the Winter Meetings by saying the door remained open for a Harper return. Rizzo will again have to work his way around ownership undermining his negotiation leverage as well as putting him in a place to publicly contradict what was said.

At the least, expectations are for the market to move while baseball’s front office people assemble in San Diego. Zack Wheeler’s early deal with Philadelphia provided hope this offseason would not be the epic slog of 2018-19 free agency, one which left Harper and Manny Machado without employers until winter was thawing. The sluggish offseason made Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel simply unemployed. 

The Nationals do have business beyond the heavyweights. Second base remains open. Howie Kendrick is back, but where will he play? They need more bullpen help. What about a left-handed bench bat? Is it necessary? Could it be the 26th man next year with expanded rosters? Is Rizzo preparing for the designated hitter to be adopted in the National League? What’s Carter Kieboom’s immediate future? What’s happening with 2018 first-round pick Mason Denaburg? What’s next for the World Series champions? 

The Winter Meetings are back. Washington’s place during the offseason bonanza has never been more prominent.

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Juan Soto greets Nationals fans while dressed as Santa Claus

Juan Soto greets Nationals fans while dressed as Santa Claus

The winter can feel like one of the slowest seasons of the year, especially for baseball fans who long for the season to pick back up again.

But Nationals outfielder Juan Soto met with fans on Saturday at a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Bailey's Crossroads, Virginia, and did his best to make them feel merry by getting in the holiday spirit.

Soto already helped give D.C. the greatest gift of all in a World Series title, so maybe he really is Mr. Claus.

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