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Athletics 2014 season review: Sean Doolittle, from washout to All-Star

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According to Billy Butler, Doo holds his arm like that so he has somewhere to store his pizza between bites.
According to Billy Butler, Doo holds his arm like that so he has somewhere to store his pizza between bites.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Welp, I never did finish my 2014 Oakland A's season review series last winter. Too many offseason moves to keep up. However, I did conveniently leave off at No. 62, Sean Doolittle, who hasn't thrown a pitch in a game yet this year but who is scheduled to come off the DL today (via Slusser) and rejoin the team in Detroit. What a perfect time for a refresher! A few years ago, it wouldn't have been weird that Doolittle hadn't thrown a pitch because he wasn't yet a pitcher, but this year it's been a real bummer.

Player profile

Name: Sean Doolittle, aka Doo
Position: LHP, relief (closer)
Stats: 61 games, 2.73 ERA*, 62⅔ innings, 89 Ks, 8 BB, 5 HR, 38 hits, 22 saves**
WAR: 1.2 bWAR, 2.4 fWAR
How he got here: Drafted in 1st round in 2007 (No. 41 overall)***
2014 Salary: $630,000
2015 Status: Under contract
2015 Salary: $780,000

* 1.71 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching)

** 22 saves and 5 holds, total 27-for-31 in save situations

*** One of only two guys who played for the 2014 A's and was originally drafted by the team, with the other being Sonny Gray; so far this year, you can add Max Muncy (2012) and Arnold Leon (Int'l FA, 2008) to the list of truly homegrown players.

Season summary

The story of Sean Doolittle is well-known by now. He was drafted by the A's as a first baseman and he was a pretty good hitter in the minors, but injuries looked to be ending his career prematurely. However, in college he'd been nearly as good at pitching as he'd been at hitting, so the A's gave him a shot on the mound. He succeeded virtually instantly, made the Majors in under a year, and within three years had made the All-Star team as a closer. The only thing crazier than his story is the fact that it's not even close to unique, although the rapid All-Star berth is unprecedented for a converted pitcher as near as I can tell.

Doolittle started the 2014 season as a set-up man for closer Jim Johnson. That lasted about a week before Johnson was yanked. The A's mixed and matched their late-inning relievers throughout April, and it wasn't until May 20 that they finally settled on Doolittle as the permanent ninth-inning option. It wasn't tough to tell why he was chosen -- he'd already been excellent in his first two seasons, and he'd started the year with 30 strikeouts and only one walk in 22 innings. He had just recently broken a string of 30 straight outings without issuing a free pass, dating back to the previous August. He was also limiting the hits and homers pretty well, but more importantly he was preserving close leads.

The promotion didn't do anything to stop Doo's roll. He didn't blow his second save of the season until June 28, and he didn't issue his second walk until June 30. His dominant performance earned him his first All-Star berth, and in the game itself he struck out Chicago's Starlin Castro, allowed a groundball single to Atlanta's Freddie Freeman, and then struck out Castro's teammate Anthony Rizzo. He entered the second half of the season with a 2.89 ERA, 63 strikeouts, and only three walks.

Although Doolittle's second half wasn't perfect, he was one of the few 2014 A's who kept performing well through the final months. He started out well -- in his first 13 games after the break, he didn't allow a run while converting seven straight saves. However, on Aug. 23 he pulled a muscle in his side and the next day he went on the DL with an intercostal strain.

His next appearance came on Sept. 13, and he ended up appearing in seven total games after returning. In six of those games, Doo didn't allow a run. In the other, on Sept. 17, he entered in the ninth inning with a 1-0 lead against the Rangers and faced six batters: flyout, single, double, intentional walk, homer (J.P. Arencibia), walk. He retired only one of those six batters, and his final baserunner eventually scored after Doo was removed. His final line included five earned runs and one-quarter of his entire season's walk total; it was the only game all year in which Doo issued more than one free pass. However, it was also his only blown save of the second half, his only loss of the second half, and indeed the only time he even allowed a single run in the second half. While everyone else was struggling, Doo was keeping things safe on the rare occasions that the A's carried a lead into the ninth inning. The only real problem was that he was gone for three weeks while he was hurt.

Here are two ways of looking at Doo's second-half numbers. The first line is the real one, and the second line is the real one but with that horrid Rangers game removed:

Doo 2nd half: 19 games, 2.37 ERA, 19 innings, 26 Ks, 6 BB, 1 HR, 11 hits
Doo modified: 18 games, 0.00 ERA, 18 innings, 26 Ks, 4 BB, 0 HR, 8 hits, 8-for-8 saves

Obviously, the bad game counts, but it only counts once because you can't lose the same game twice. For the rest of the 18 games he pitched, he was as close to perfect as a closer can realistically be. I'll take 18 flawless outings even though they come with one bad day that turns a win into an irredeemable loss.

Doolittle pitched in the Wild Card game, and it went like everything else that night -- he was good but got beaten anyway. The A's had a 7-6 lead in the ninth inning and their All-Star on the mound. A bloop single by Josh Willingham, a pinch-runner moving to third on a sacrifice and a stolen base, and a sac fly by Nori Aoki tied the game. Doolittle stayed in and pitched a scoreless 10th, but he still ended up with the blown save in a playoff elimination loss. The blame could go to Luke Gregerson for letting it get within one run, or Derek Norris for failing to control the Royals' running game, but it's hard to pin more than a tiny bit of it on Doolittle. Willingham is a slugger who usually beats the A's with late-inning homers, and Doo got him to hit it so weakly that none of the fielders could catch it. Such is baseball.

Anyway, Doolittle was one of the familiar faces left from the offseason overhaul, but then he went down late in the winter with a rotator cuff problem. He's recovered now, he's completed his rehab assignment in the minors, and he's finally going to start his 2015 campaign.

But last season seemed like the end of a chapter for Doo, the one in which he developed into a star pitcher. The chapter began in 2011 when he first got on the mound in the Arizona Fall League, it continued through his rise in 2012 and his firm establishment in 2013, and it culminated in his ascension to All-Star status in 2014. And now, with that storyline completed, his mid-career transition doesn't have to be his defining feature anymore. Instead of "converted first baseman Sean Doolittle," he is "All-Star closer Sean Doolittle." And now, possibly as soon as today and with a whole new team around him, he can start writing the next chapter, which is hopefully the one that ends with him sealing the final out of the World Series for Oakland.

Sean Doolittle 2014
Wassaaaaaaaaaaaaaap! -- Photo credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: A+ ... I seem to recall expecting him to be good and wondering if/when he might seize the closer role. Not only did he seize it, he ran with it. He (deservedly) made the All-Star team and only walked eight batters all season while blowing only four leads. There is absolutely nothing more you could have reasonably asked for.

2014 season grade, overall: A+ ... Not much to add here. He was one of the top relievers in the game. His rate of 11.13 strikeouts-per-walk was the 6th-highest in MLB history dating back to 1900, for pitchers with at least 60 innings:

- Dennis Eckersley 1990 (18.25)
- Mariano Rivera 2008 (12.83)
- Edward Mujica 2012 (12.00)
- Phil Hughes 2014 (11.63)
- Koji Uehara 2013 (11.22)
- ... tied w/ Rafael Betancourt 2010 -- Doo and Betancourt each had precisely 89 Ks and 8 BBs, and their innings pitched were separated by only one out.

Video highlights

All Doo highlights basically look the same. He rocks, he fires, and the batter swings and misses for strike three. This one is notable because Mike Trout is the one striking out.

Here is Doolittle's entire All-Star performance, with every pitch to all three of his batters. At the end of this six-minute video, there is a two-second blip of him standing next to Jeter in the dugout, and that somehow made it into the title, description, and thumbnail of the video. All hail Captain Jetes, I guess.

On June 22, something magical happened. The A's trailed 7-6 in the bottom of the 10th inning, and they had been forced to burn their designated hitter earlier in the game. Down to their final out and with nobody on base, relief pitcher Fernando Abad was the scheduled hitter, representing the last hope against All-Star Boston closer Koji Uehara. Instead, Bob Melvin called on Doo to pinch-hit, which made sense since Doo probably has more professional hitting experience than most MLB pitchers. Unfortunately, he grounded out to second to end the game, but it was worth it just to see him take his hacks.

The A's put out a pretty uninspired social-media-related TV ad this year, which is unusual because their commercials are usually among the best in the sport (respect to the Mariners, unarguably the best). Instead, you should go back and watch last year's version, which was truly funny and well-made. Print sandwich!

***

In the time it took me to write this article, the A's officially activated Doolittle from the DL. It's on like Donkey Kong, y'all.

***

May as well finish the other two 2014 players I never got to. Here you go:

No. 67 Dan Straily: He flamed out after seven starts in Oakland, then he was mediocre in Triple-A, and then he was dealt to the Cubs in the trade for Jeff Samardzija. Grade: D-, avoiding an F only because he was part of a crucial trade

No. 88 Kyle Blanks: He had a .935 OPS in 56 plate appearances for the A's. Then he got hurt, and then he kept getting hurt worse and worse as he tried to recover, but he never played here again. Now he's on the Rangers, and he has a .907 OPS in 63 PAs, and he's just undergone surgery to have a cyst removed because he's run out of normal ways to get injured. The Cycle of Blanks continues. Grade: C-, for being excellent but for only a tiny span of time

... OK we can start the 2015 season now.