I'm excited about Sean Doolittle for a lot of reasons. Once upon a time, my excitement revolved around the 2009 spring training buzz from scouts that Doolittle was major league ready, could hit well in the big leagues, and might be a gold glove caliber 1Bman.
The next thing we heard about Doolittle was that he had blown out his knee, and then we got alternating reports of bad news and no news, and then -- when he had seemingly faded from obscurity -- came the news this past off-season that the A's were converting him to be a pitcher -- where he had also excelled at the University of Virginia.
And so far so great. Topping out, reportedly, at 96-97MPH, single-A hitters were putty in Doolittle's hands, as the lefty put up a line of 10.1 IP, 5 hits, 1 ER, 2 BB, 21 K. Promoted to AA, Doolittle has continued to excel: 10 IP, 2 hits, 1 ER, 4 BB, 17 K. In 21.1 IP, that's 7 hits, 2 ER, 6 BBs, and 38 Ks.
Now to the "undervalued" part...
The A's, being a small market team, need to maximize the heck out of their assets, otherwise known as their players. The A's, being a crappy offensive team, need to maximize any offensive help they can get, be it from the starting lineup or the bench.
Enter Sean Doolittle. The reason Doolittle isn't playing 1B anymore isn't because he lost the ability to hit a baseball or to have a quality at bat. His knee simply won't allow him to endure the rigors of playing 1B, of running the bases throughout a game day after day, and so on. Let's not forget, though, that at the time Doolittle's career was stalled he was projected to be a solid major league hitter. (Doolittle's minor league career stats can be found here.)
As a lefty reliever and available pinch hitter, Doolittle could give the A's a 5-man bench to their opponents' 4. Here's a guy who could pinch hit, and provide a solid LH bat off the bench, giving the A's essentially a 26-man roster: 12 pitchers, 9 position players, and 5 more off the bench.
Certainly, if he only pinch hits Doolittle can't be expected to put up the kind of numbers he could if he were hitting every day. But if you look at the few pitchers who are considered to be good enough hitters that they occasionally pinch hit -- Micah Owings and Carlos Zambrano come to mind -- Doolittle has better credentials than they do, or at least had better credentials before he lost most of 3 years trying to heal his knee.
Owings' career batting line is .283/.310/.502, so that's pretty legit, especially for someone who bats as seldom as he does. Unfortunately for, currently, the Padres, Owings doesn't pitch very well. (His career ERA of 4.86, all in the NL, suggests he should really start shagging some fly balls in LF.) For any associations of "Zambrano" and "good hitter," in fact Zambrano's career line is .239/.248/.388. There really aren't many pitchers who you'd want hitting for you in a key spot, just some you might dislike less.
The kinds of projections I recall seeing for Doolittle, back when he was healthy and playing 1B, were along the lines of .270/.350/.430. That's a nice pinch hitter to have in the fold, especially if you can give him the platoon advantage every time up to help offset the "rust factor" of not hitting every day.
Could Doolittle give the A's a chance for a true "5-man bench" while maintaining a strong 7-man bullpen? Could he, potentially, be the best pitcher-hitter combo in the big leagues? And if so, might we eventually see an upsurge of "pitcher-pinch hitters," as teams recognize the value of keeping sharp the hitting skills of pitchers who once raked in college or in the minor leagues?