WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Sean Doolittle leaned against a shelf in the middle of the Nationals' clubhouse Thursday while explaining his thoughts on the Houston Astros cheating.
Doolittle often looked down and around the room, his mohawk untamed after being forced into a hat all morning during the first Nationals pitchers and catchers workout of 2020. Across the room from him were players who had little chance of making the team. Many of those relievers are non-roster invitees trying to return to the major leagues. Their job status is tenuous when employed. It’s all the more challenging when trying to find a way back after failing.
And when Doolittle thinks about the Astros stealing signs via technology, he thinks about the extrapolations. What did that do to relievers who had a bad day against a cheating team? What did it do to him personally?
First, the latter. Doolittle played for Oakland in 2017 before being traded to Washington on July 16. He threw 21 ⅓ innings in Oakland that season. During those, Doolittle allowed three home runs and eight earned runs. Two of those home runs were hit by the Astros -- George Springer and Jose Altuve, to be exact. They produced three of the eight earned runs he gave up before being traded. He allowed five earned runs in the other 20 innings (2.25 ERA).
Which makes Doolittle think about the Sliding Doors Theory as it pertains to him: Were those failed outings against the Astros -- a team convicted of stealing signs with technology -- enough to lower his trade value to the degree a swap with Washington worked for Oakland? And, if so, is it partly to thank for him eventually becoming a World Series champion?
“Maybe they don’t make the trade,” Doolittle said. “Maybe I’m still in Oakland. I don’t know. I really don’t know. But that's the kind of stuff that you just start thinking about. But, for me, I got traded, I landed on my feet, I ended up in a great spot. But for some guys, their bad outings, that was kind of the end of the road for them. They got sent down. They never got called back up again. I think about those guys a lot.”
Yes, Doolittle throws fastballs 90 percent of the time. However, the hitter knowing what is coming -- or is not -- is an enormous factor for any opposing pitcher, no matter repertoire. Further, being on the edge with a job, which is so often the case among relievers, means one bad day can produce combating thoughts for weeks.
Doolittle has been through this process multiple times himself. His results fluctuated last season. He wondered about his release point, his mechanics toward the plate, wondered why his fixes on the side often weren’t fixes in his outings. Questions. Doubt. Hunt for solutions. Repeat.
“I think about how they say they wish they had done more to stop it and they’re remorseful,” Doolittle said. “And I think about pitchers that had to stand up in front of their lockers after games and searching for answers after they just got hit around. I don’t know if a lot of people realize what that does to a pitcher, especially a reliever, who in that situation, that might have been the difference in the game and he’s got to stand there and face the music not really knowing what to put his finger on or what went wrong or why he got hit around the way he did.
“For some guys that was their last chance, they got sent down or they got sent out. You spend weeks, you spend months, looking for answers after an outing like that and it can change the trajectory of the season. It can impact your team’s win-loss record in the long run because you’re not as effective because you’re kind of racked with self-doubt.
“I think about the implications it might have had for teams making the playoffs and guys in the clubhouse and clubhouse staff playoff shares, and how that would have come into effect. There’s lots of layers to this, so it’s going to take more than one day of issuing statements and answering questions to feel good about moving on from this.”
Which means Thursday was just a tiny start. The Astros held multiple press conferences and open locker room opportunities. Their apologies fluctuated from stock to semi-defiant. The Nationals listened and largely shrugged.
The only thing not in dispute is the widespread frustration outside of the Houston side. Much of that frustration only led to more questions in the offseason, from trades to jobs to what's next.
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