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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