The Oakland Athletics tried everything to replace departed closer Grant Balfour. They brought in an expensive All-Star to take his spot, but Jim Johnson hasn't lived up to the task. They tried going with a committee, but no one could get comfortable in their abstract roles and Luke Gregerson started racking up blown saves just in case they were an undervalued commodity (they're not, they're terrible). They tried teaching Ryan Cook how to speak in an Australian accent in the hopes that would help, but look what it did to his elbow.
And now, on May 20 (last night), the A's have announced what they probably should have done from the start. Bob Melvin named left-hander Sean Doolittle as the closer, or at least conceded that he was currently working in that role.
Melvin acknowledges Doolittle in closer role now.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) May 21, 2014
Doolittle on being named closer: "It's pretty cool, I guess."— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) May 21, 2014
There might be more to this chain of events than just determining the best pitcher for the job, and Jeremy Koo explored that side of things in this post. For now, let's look at what Doo does on the field.
Sean Doolittle, 2014: 22 innings, 30 K's, 1 walk, 17 hits, 2 homers, 3.27 ERA, 1.67 FIP
Doolittle has been nothing but a dominant reliever since he entered the league in 2012. We're past the point where we have to worry if he was a rookie fluke; if the league hasn't figured him out yet, then he must be doing something right. My favorite part, though, is those walks. Or should I say, that walk, since he's only allowed one this year. From Slusser's Drumbeat:
On Tuesday, the third-year reliever issued his first walk of 2014 - and first going back to Aug. 31, a span of 30 consecutive outings without a walk, the longest by an A's pitcher since Dennis Eckersley's 41 appearances in a row without a walk from Aug. 17, 1989 to June 10, 1990.
Racking up 30 strikeouts with only one walk is impressive. That kind of pinpoint control could make Bartolo Colon blush like a gigantic, person-sized cherry, and it would make Mariano Rivera roll over in his grave in jealousy if Rivera weren't still alive.
And what better stat to excel in as a closer? If you're in a save situation, then by definition you're pitching with a lead. The worst thing you can do is give the other team a head start by issuing a balfour to every Jim and John who comes to the plate. Better to force the opponent to beat you himself than to give out free baserunners. There are lots of things I want in my closer, but the most important is a low walk rate. Can't stand those ninth inning walks, let me tell you.
But of course, there's more to success than just limiting walks. Joe Blanton almost never handed out free passes, but that was only because opponents were too busy smashing his pitches all over the park. So, it's nice to see that Doolittle also maintains an elite strikeout rate -- 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings for his career (27.7 percent K%), 12.3 this year (35.3 percent K%). The more strikeouts you record, the less chance of batted balls finding holes in the defense and landing as hits, and indeed Doolittle has limited opponents to a .214 batting average over his career while allowing only nine home runs in 135 games. Statistically, he's the total package -- a strikeout factory who keeps the hits and homers down while never walking anybody.
Of course, there are concerns. There are always concerns. Let me ease them for you.
Isn't it bad that Doolittle is a lefty? Closers are usually right-handed
Indeed, most closers are righties, and it's all to do with platoon splits. On a larger level, right-handers are more likely to succeed against hitters on both sides, whereas left-handers are more likely to have platoon splits which favor their performances against left-handed hitters. There are plenty of exceptions to this stereotype, though, and Doolittle is one of them. His career splits:
Doolittle vs. LHH, career: .220/.253/.341 in 194 PA's
Doolittle vs. RHH, career: .216/.257/.315 in 348 PA's
Doolittle is about as even as you can be against hitters on both sides. Looking deeper, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is virtually identical against both sides, and he's allowed twice as many homers to righties ... in nearly twice as many plate appearances. Doo don't care if you hit lefty, righty, or stand on the plate and swing downward. He's probably going to strike you out either way.
How will Doolittle survive as a closer with only one pitch?
He won't have to, because he has two pitches now. He started playing around with a slider last season, and now he's throwing it once every five or six pitches on average. What's more, it's been good. He's thrown his slider 57 times this year, accounting for 17.5 percent of his total offerings. Opponents are yet to record a hit on a Doolittle slider, they're whiffing on it 35 percent of the time that they swing at it, and when they do make contact they're hitting it on the ground 43 percent of the time. According to Fangraphs' pitch values, the slider has been by far his best offering on a per-pitch basis. Sure, there's still time for the league to adjust to the new pitch, but there's also time for Doolittle to improve on it further. What matters is that Doolittle has, for now, successfully added a pitch to his repertoire which is the perfect counterpart for his 93-95 mph fastball. (Note: He's also working on a changeup, which he has also tried in the past, but he's only thrown it twice this year.)
But does he have that closer's mentality? Can he shut the door?
He has so far. In his career, Doolittle has six saves, 49 holds, and seven blown saves. That means that he's appeared in 62 games which constituted "save situations," even if they weren't in the ninth inning, and he's held the lead 88.7 percent of the time. That's not an elite conversion rate, but it's good enough as a starting point. I'm not worried about Doolittle's psyche in close, late-inning situations.
Let's conclude with a look at how Doolittle fares on the closer's checklist:
- Lots of strikeouts, no walks. CHECK
- Doesn't allow homers. CHECK
- Impressive heater to blow hitters away. CHECK
- Large beard for intimidation. CHECK
- Enters games to a song by Metallica. CHECK
- Yells and screams after big strikeouts. CHECK (see photo above)
- Goofy personality shown through social media. CHECK
- Solid nickname for word-play purposes (Doo). CHECK
- Seems like he might be just a little bit crazy, but you can't be sure. CHECK
Yep, he passes with flying colors. It's finally happening, everyone. Sean Doolittle is our closer, and it feels great.