Sean Doolittle missed most of the 2015 season with a shoulder injury and the Oakland A's bullpen has been terrible. That is not a coincidence; there is a causative effect there, not just a correlation. Doolittle is by far the A's best reliever, and losing him from the closer role not only cost them an All-Star arm but also shifted everyone else up into roles that they weren't particularly well-suited for -- Tyler Clippard as a closer, Even Scribner as a set-up man, Angel Castro as a Major Leaguer, etc.
I am pleased to inform you that Doolittle is back.
That doesn't mean he's exactly the same guy. His velocity is still slightly down -- he averaged 95 mph on his fastball the last two years, via Brooks Baseball, and he's mostly topping out at 93 so far since his return with an occasional 94 mixed in. We're still seeing the slider he flashed last year, though it hasn't yet worked its way back into his regular arsenal, and he's added a changeup that he has thrown against right-handers. Some of the 28-year-old's eye-popping physical talent is inevitably starting to erode after his long-term injury, but he's making up for it by working to be a more complete pitcher with something more to offer than raw velocity.
All that being said, though, Labor Day featured some classic Doolittle. He entered in the 9th to close out a one-run lead against three tough right-handed hitters, and he needed only five pitches, all fastballs, all for strikes. He threw a 92 mph fastball to Jose Altuve and induced a popout behind second base. He threw a 93 mph fastball to Carlos Correa, who hit a virtually identical popout. Carlos Gomez came up as the Astros' final chance, and he watched Doo hit the outer half of the plate with a pair of fastballs, 93 and 94. I'm not sure why Gomez didn't swing at the second one, which caught more of the zone than the first and was less "painting the corner" and more "getting a bit too much of the plate," but I guess he wasn't expecting another fastball from a guy who throws fastballs 85 percent of the time?
And then, with an 0-2 count to Gomez, any A's fan who has been watching the last few years got a little extra pang of excitement. No, not that bad kind of excitement that the rest of Oakland's relievers give us, the kind where it feels like you've had too much coffee as you pace manically around the room screaming at Drew to quit tossing Pom-Poms out there. This was the good kind of excitement. The kind where Rickey Henderson is on 1st base in a tight game and we all know he's about to steal, or where a runner gets a bit too daring against Josh Reddick's arm and we all know he's about to nail him at the plate.
The high fastball was coming. I knew it. You knew it. Gomez probably knew it. Somewhere, Bo knows it, I assume. Everybody knew it. And it was beautiful.
That's 93 mph, at the top edge of the zone, on the outer half of the plate. It's slightly more hittable than the 95 mph version we're used to seeing, but it was enough to get the job done this time. It was Doolittle's first save since Sept. 19, 2014, just two weeks short of a full calendar year. Here's what Doo had to say after the game, via Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle:
"I feel back," Doolittle said. "To finally prove to myself I can go out there with no restrictions or second thought, I can do it on back-to-back days, I can get swings and misses on fastballs — moving forward, it's really big for me mentally to finish the season strong."
Doo really has come a long way this year. When he returned for a game in late May, he was barely hitting 90 mph and it was clear that he wasn't ready. When he came back again in late August, he walked a pair in his debut against the Rays -- that equaled one-quarter of his entire 2014 walk total. He issued another free pass in his next outing, and through those two games combined he'd faced 10 batters, retired only half of them, struck out none of them, allowed three runs, and blown a save. He'd thrown 56 pitches and recorded only three swinging strikes. (For his career, he's gotten swinging strikes on 12.9% of his pitches.)
His next three efforts showed rapid improvement. He still wasn't getting swings and misses (only four over 48 pitches), but he managed to strike out five of the 10 batters he faced and he allowed just one hit among the five fly balls he induced. The hit was a legit double by Mark Trumbo, but two of the other flies were actually foul outs to the third baseman, so only three of the 10 batters managed to avoid the fate of "striking out or fouling out." He also earned a hold by pitching the 8th inning of Oakland's 7-4 win over the D'Backs on Aug. 30, so he even got to taste a relatively high-leverage situation.
All that led up to Monday's performance. He'd pitched on Sunday, and on Friday as well, so this was a test of his post-injury resilience as well as his first save situation of the year. We already went through the result: five pitches, all strikes, capped off by a well-earned swinging strike at the moment it was most needed.
The 2015 A's bullpen has been an unmitigated disaster. It has been historically bad. But getting a healthy and effective Sean Doolittle back in the closer role is the first step toward fixing that problem in 2016. Welcome back to the 9th inning, Doo.