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Sean Doolittle is not his 2014 self, he is better

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Sean Doolittle, having given up 20 percent of the runs that the 2016 Oakland Athletics bullpen has conceded (1/5), is already drawing a few calls around these parts to be replaced as closer. It's a little more than just a home run conceded to an aging shortstop, of course. The hypothesis is that Doolittle just isn't the same pitcher he was in his 2014 All-Star campaign, not the same since injuring his oblique and then his shoulder.

And they're right. He's not the same pitcher.

He might be better because he's starting to do the things that made him an All-Star in 2014 and he's adding an effective changeup too.

What made Doolittle so good in 2014

Let's go back to an old article of Mike Petriello on FanGraphs. By the start of June 24, Doolittle had struck out 50 batters and walked one And while Doolittle threw hard, he didn't throw that hard, averaging 93.9 on his fastball to that point (measuring from 50 feet). He also was still basically only throwing the fastball. It was two other things that made Doolittle an All-Star closer, the vertical movement on his fastball and throwing it up in the zone:

When it comes to horizontal movement, PITCHf/x doesn't see anything notable: 48 other pitchers with at least 15 innings this year have better four-seam horizontal movement. Vertical movement, however, is a little different, as Doolittle sneaks into the bottom of the top 10. Expand that to 150 innings since 2012, and he's in the top 15.

...

In a sport where so many pitchers are constantly trying to keep the ball down to induce groundballs and avoid the home run, Doolittle is doing the exact opposite. He's throwing it hard and high, and he's doing it a lot.

Velocity

Doolittle's fastball velocity over the last three years has moved around as he's dealt with injuries:

In that All-Star campaign, Doolittle's velocity was around 95-96 (measured from 55 feet) all the way up until he went on the disabled list following an August 23 game. He returned for seven regular season games in September, his velocity noticeably reduced, and he gave up five runs in those appearances.

Then Doolittle was diagnosed with a shoulder injury in the offseason, something that might have happened while he was taking anti-inflammatories for the oblique in September that could have "slightly masked" pain that would have warned him of a problem, he told Eno Sarris of FanGraphs while he was rehabbing last April. He returned in May to average just 90.5, and after that a different problem emerged in his left shoulder that prompted another trip to the disabled list.

Doolittle returned in time to appear in August three times. While in his first two appearances he was still basically getting his velocity up as if it were spring training, things actually started ticking up as the year went on. Per game from August 23 to October 2, his fastball velocity averaged 92.3, 91.5, 93.2, 93.7, 94.0, 94.0, 93.6, 92.8, 93.8, 94.1, 93.8. In the final nine of those 11 appearances, where he was sitting 93-94, Doolittle gave up just three runs in 11 innings for a 2.45 ERA while striking out 13 and walking two.

And now in his two appearances this April, Doolittle is hitting 94.1-94.6, which is about what he was throwing in the first few games of his All-Star 2014. Doolittle's ERA in March/April 2014 was 5.68 while he was striking out 15 and walking nobody. It would be really exciting if he was able to get it back up to 95, but he might not need to.

Vertical movement

In 2014, Doolittle's average fastball vertical movement of 11.6 inches was 10th best among pitchers with at least 20 innings, sixth among relievers. In September of 2015, he had an average of 11.7 inches of fastball vertical movement in 10 innings. In his first two appearances of 2016, however he's averaging 13.8 inches of vertical movement!

What could explain this spike in vertical movement? Spin rate, Josh Phegley explained to the Sacramento Bee's Matt Kawahara after Doolittle earned his first save of 2015 on September 7:

"I think it's his spin rate," Phegley said, referring to the rotation Doolittle creates on the ball when he releases it. "You think of sinker guys, the ball travels down. But here you have a hard four-seam guy, and it doesn't seem to come in and drop. It almost seems to ride.

"I don't believe balls can rise. I haven't seen anybody that can do it. But I think his stays on a (flat) plane longer, so when you're kind of expecting the ball to come down into the hitting zone, it seems to kind of ride off your bat."

Spin rate data from Statcast only goes back to 2015, but we can see that the spin rate seems to be better than ever in the early going, which would explain the increase in vertical movement:

Date Avg FB Spin Rate (RPM) # Comment
5/27/15 2232 6
8/23/15 2230 17
8/26/15 2179 9
8/30/15 2268 10
9/4/15 2266 15
9/6/15 2208 17
9/7/15 2259 5
9/12/15 2206 20 One 92 MPH, 1145 RPM pitch removed for bad spin rate data
9/17/15 2178 24
9/25/15 2293 38
9/30/15 2275 30
10/2/15 2242 11
4/4/16 2256 3 One 83 MPH, 1108 RPM pitch removed for misclassification
4/5/16 2327 6

Can he sustain this? Small sample size is an issue here, but if he can stay above 2300 RPMs he'll be in uncharted territory. We could end up seeing fastball movement from Doolittle that we've never seen before.

Staying up

So why did Sean Doolittle give up a home run to Jimmy Rollins on Tuesday? He just missed his location, he and Bob Melvin say (from MLB.com's Jane Lee):

"I came up and in the previous pitch, got a swing and miss. It didn't get there," Doolittle said. "I didn't execute. I felt really good, I had swing and miss stuff tonight, and when I had to make a pitch with two outs and two strikes in a tie ballgame in the ninth, I didn't do it."

Doolittle just made a terrible pitch:

This is just an ill-timed mistake that Rollins took full advantage of, not an indictment on Doolittle's fastball. Worry when batters start catching up on those upstairs fastballs, not when guys crush meatballs down the middle.

Secondary pitches

One thing that Sean Doolittle has been trying to do over the years is develop some more secondary offerings. He gave up on a curveball after the 2013 season and flirted with a slider in 2014 before reducing its use dramatically, sticking with his pre-shoulder injury fastball for the most part. But now he's developing a changeup he's used quite a lot more frequently so far:

Manager Bob Melvin raved about it to MLB.com's Jane Lee after Opening Night:

An effective changeup can only make Doolittle's fastball better, and A's manager Bob Melvin said Tuesday that the ones he threw Monday "were the best changeups we've ever seen him throw."

"Previously, it's more a pitch just to show to try to get more play on the fastball, but it actually produced for him yesterday and got some bad swings," Melvin said. "I think that's going to be important for him going along, but also confidence-wise, knowing he can throw it in situations where you're just not wasting it to show."

He's only thrown 10 changeups this year, according to Brooks Baseball, but if it can be as effective a pitch as Bob Melvin says, combined with a rejuvenated fastball, he may not just be as good as his old self, but perhaps even better.