WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle threw 14 pitches Tuesday night, 11 for strikes and none faster than 89 mph.
His velocity is down. Doolittle's average fastball velocity in 2019 was 93.5 mph, the lowest of his career. Hovering in the upper 80s is odd, even for the setting: throwing in a final exhibition game, in an empty stadium, at the end of Summer Camp.
The question is if the irregularity will be common, then graduate to disconcerting. And, he’s not the only one. Everyone on the Nationals’ staff has been below their average fastball velocity during the three exhibition games, which concluded Tuesday night when the Nationals-Orioles game was stalled by baseball’s most treacherous opponent, rain.
“I kind of expect that,” Davey Martinez said of the radar gun reductions. “I thought [Patrick] Corbin threw the ball really well… I think he’ll be fine once we get him stretched out and get him going. [Doolittle’s] velo is down, but it’s a lot better than it has been. I think it’s going to take some time to build him up and get him going. But once Thursday rolls around, that adrenaline will kick in a little bit more. He’ll be fine. [Tanner] Rainey was down all spring and today he was up to 95, 97, so that was encouraging.”
Tracking velocity now, just like in a regular spring training situation, can be a bit of a fool’s errand. There’s no juice in these games. They don’t count. Competitiveness is hard to come by in an empty stadium.
However, the parks will not be full this year. This is the new working environment, one without authentic bursts of noise or faces all around the stadium. No one is heckling for motivation the way they do in Philadelphia while hanging over the rail at the top of the bullpen. No one is screaming your name because they have your jersey on. It’s just the pitcher and the hitter, searching for something inside to stir up emotions.
“You’ve got to find that inner soul and figure out how to motivate yourself,” Martinez said. “Basically, each individual is going to be different. I know once Opening Day rolls around, they’re going to be ready to compete, and that’s all you can ask them to do. [Orioles reliever Mychal] Givens today, the report on him was 95 to 97 and he comes out there and he’s topped out at 94. It’s just everywhere. I think that will change once Opening Day rolls around and we start playing for something and guys will be motivated then.”
Martinez repeated two things when discussing the drop in velocity Tuesday: the aforementioned anticipation Opening Day will be a partial remedy, and that he does not know why Doolittle is plying his trade in the upper 80s.
“You know what, I have really no idea,” Martinez said. “He looks really good. His mechanics, I think, look great. Was talking to [pitching coach] Paul [Menhart] today -- [Doolittle] was better today. He was up at 89, a couple 90. I think it’s just going to come. Like I said, he might be a little slower than the other guys. But, I think his velo will get up there in the 90s again. We’ll just have to wait and see. The ball was coming out nice. Threw some good fastballs [Tuesday]. I know he is mixing in a little more breaking pitchers, I know he wants to. So, we’ll see what happens.”
Doolittle has gone through spells where his velocity drops. He turns to video to figure out why, and takes in as much information as is available about his spin rate and release point. Is he being direct to the mound? Is his hand up? These are the things he thinks about when the radar gun says something is off.
He changed his mechanics during the wait for baseball to resume. His leg kick is lower, making him quicker to the plate, and, in theory, reducing his arm drag. The results have not been encouraging in the extremely short exhibition season. Doolittle gave up three hard-hit balls to the first three batters Tuesday night. Things weren’t crisp in his other outings, either.
But, Martinez and Corbin both think -- generally speaking -- a velocity recovery is coming.
“I think for most guys it will come back,” Corbin said. “It’s tough when you’re not facing live hitters, you’re not on a mound for such a long period of time, then you try to go out there and ramp things up. You try to throw as many bullpens as we can. Just, game situations are a lot different. The slope is a lot different. I think just the more reps we get, guys will feel comfortable the more batters you face. Obviously once games start to count, I think that will help out, too, a lot.”
If it doesn’t, then it’s time to be concerned about why.
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