If you’ve been following the A’s this year, you’re surely familiar with the story of Sean Doolittle. He was drafted by Oakland with the 41st overall pick in 2007 as a first baseman, but multiple knee surgeries and a wrist issue had his promising career hanging by a thread in 2011. After discovering that he still knew how to pitch after a striking out more than a batter per inning in college, he shifted course and, at age 25, started a new career as a pitcher in Single-A this spring. His meteoric rise took him through all three minor-league levels in a span of 16 appearances over two months, culminating in his Major League debut on Tuesday in which he struck out Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli, and Yorvit Torrealba and retired all four batters he faced.
Pretty interesting story, huh? Hitter converts to pitcher, dominates right out of the gate, and makes the Major Leagues in no time. You might even call it unique. You'd be wrong, though. You could probably guess that Doolittle isn't the first player to successfully convert himself into a pitcher, but did you know that someone else lived his exact story just two years ago? I bet you want to know who it is, don't you. Well, I'm not going to tell you until the end of the post, so deal with it. A few of you might already know, but keep it to yourselves until everyone is done reading! I will now take you through Roughly Three Levels Of Similarity To Sean Doolittle.
Lots of guys pitch in college before giving it up in the pros to focus on hitting, and lots of pro pitchers used to be good hitters in college. Every so often, you hear about a pitcher who converts into a position player, with Rick Ankiel being the most obvious example. Recently, former 1st round pick Brian Bogusevic left the mound to become an outfielder, and he's got a .713 OPS in 388 plate appearances for the Astros (when adjusted to Astro Time, that looks more like a .913). The Pirates liked the idea so much that they just converted their 2010 2nd round pick, Stetson Allie, into a hitter as well, after finding out that he was allergic to the strike zone.
But what about players who start pitching after failed professional careers as position players? When I first got the idea to research this topic, my thoughts immediately turned to Tony Pena, Jr.; he was drafted as a shortstop and stuck there for years in Atlanta’s system on account of his stellar defense. Sometimes he would even stand next to home plate with a bat in his hands, though he never really learned how to use it. Of course, when the Kansas City Royals found out about his career .285 OBP in the minors, they just had to have him, allowing him to rack up more than 300 games as a Major League shortstop. In 2009, it was finally decided that Pena would never hit enough to be worthwhile, and he traded in his (still unused) bat for a rosin bag. Most recently, he has spent all of 2011 and 2012 with Boston’s AAA club. He’s never made the majors as a pitcher, though, with his only MLB inning coming in 2008, when he was still a shortstop and entered as an emergency option in a blowout. So, Pena satisfies the qualifications of being drafted as a shortstop, playing professionally as such for nearly a decade, and switching mid-career. He never became dominant, though, and in fact has never even made the Majors as a hurler. Let’s see who’s next on the list.
Three other players who have recently made the transition to pitching have managed to find success in the Majors. Jason Motte was drafted as a catcher by the Cardinals in 2003, but never really hit at all. A broken thumb in 2006 was enough to get him to give up on hitting and focus on pitching. After spending a full 2007 and most of 2008 striking out 179 hitters in 125 innings, Motte was promoted for good in late 2008 and now has a World Series ring which he earned as St. Louis's closer. Carlos Marmol was signed by the Cubs as a catcher and outfielder in 2001, but by 2002 he was pitching and by 2006 he had made Chicago's bullpen, where he has struck out 11.7 batters per 9 innings over nearly 500 frames. Both of those guys spent multiple years honing their pitching in the minors, though. We need to find guys whose success came much faster if we are to match Doolittle.
Sergio Santos, who was drafted as a shortstop by the D'Backs in 2002, is a much better comparison to our new lefty, but he is still just the penultimate stop on our journey. Santos played 7 seasons as an infielder, but posted a .699 OPS in over 3000 plate appearances. In 2009, he pitched in every level of the minors for the White Sox, but only threw 28.2 innings with an 8.16 ERA and 20 walks. Not one to care about numbers, GM Kenny Williams put Santos on his Opening Day roster in 2010, and by 2011 he had put up a 30-save season as a closer and struck out over 11 batters per 9 innings. He still spent a full season in the minors, though, even if he did put in only 2 more innings than Doolittle did.
This brings us to our closest comparison. The background is different than Doolittle's, but starting with the conversion to pitching, this guy is pretty much the same. This player went undrafted as a catcher in 2005, but was signed and spent 4 seasons trying to make it behind the plate. In 2009, he was named the starting catcher of the Netherlands' team at the World Baseball Classic, and he even threw out Willy Taveras stealing. Midway through 2009, however, his team decided to convert him into a pitcher, and he threw a few innings in High-A (striking out 19 in 11.2 innings) before going off to the Arizona Fall League. He began his first full season as a pitcher in Single-A, striking out 28 batters in 18 innings. In AA, he upped it to 50 strikeouts in 27 innings. And then, on July 23, 2010, the Los Angeles Dodgers promoted Kenley Jansen to the Majors, and the next day he threw a scoreless inning in his debut, striking out 2 of the 3 batters he faced. Since then, he has continued to mow down hitters, striking out 181 hitters in his first 109.1 innings for a ridiculous 14.9 K/9 rate.
As a comparison for Doolittle, Jansen has it all. Drafted as a position player. Played several years in the minors before switching to pitching near the end of another failed season. Spent a couple months and a handful of innings utterly dominating the minors before a mid-season call-up, within about a calendar year of making the switch. Strikes out more hitters than seems mathematically possible. He's an amazingly similar case study.
That's not to say that there's anything wrong with that. The fact that Jansen enjoyed a remarkably similar path to Doolittle isn't meant to diminish Doolittle's unlikely success. If anything, I see it as a good thing. This way, the precedent has been set. The trail has been blazed. We know that success is possible, and Doolittle doesn't have to feel like such a pipe dream; he can actually be for real. History says that this kind of thing CAN happen, and that a player like this can be successful for more than one game (or one season). I'm not saying that Doolittle will enjoy the kind of success that Jansen has, but at least it's nice to know that that kind of success is possible.
Is Sean Doolittle unique? In the way that every person is a unique and special snowflake, yes. But as a baseball player? No, Doolittle is not one-of-a-kind. He sure is awesome, though.