Sean Doolittle made his major league debut on June 5, 2012, entering from the Athletics bullpen with two outs in the top of the fifth to face Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz.
Doolittle, who had been drafted as a first baseman out of the University of Virginia, had converted to a pitcher only one year prior to his debut and made only 17 pitching appearances in the minors before suddenly finding himself on the mound at O.co Coliseum.
Given those circumstances, Doolittle did what any smart rookie pitcher would do: He trusted his veteran catcher.
Kurt Suzuki was behind the plate for the A’s that evening, still two months away from being traded to a contending Nationals franchise that needed another catcher after Wilson Ramos tore his ACL and Jesus Flores struggled to produce as an everyday fill-in. Suzuki, like any smart catcher, wanted to make sure his rookie reliever established his fastball before delving into any other parts of his repertoire. And so he called for nothing but fastballs.
The result: Doolittle struck out Cruz on five pitches to end the inning. And when he returned to the mound for the top of the sixth, he struck out Mike Napoli on a 3-2 fastball, and then struck out Yorvit Torrealba on a 2-2 fastball.
Little could Doolittle have realized in that moment he had just established the manner in which he would pitch for the next five seasons: almost exclusively with his fastball.
“(Suzuki) kept putting fastballs down, and it was working,” he said. “Guys were swinging and missing. The first four guys I faced, I struck out three of them. And I remember shortly after that, I had an outing where I got beat a couple times on off-speed pitches. We sat down, and they were like: ‘Look, you’re here because of this. Dance with who brought you.’ “
Doolittle has been dancing with that fastball ever since. And - aside from the times he has been sidelined due to injury - he’s been remarkably successful as a rare one-pitch pitcher.
Oh, he has other pitches. And he does use them. But not often. This season, Doolittle has thrown 430 pitches, of which 387 have been fastballs (90 percent). He has thrown 31 sliders (7.2 percent) and 12 changeups (2.8 percent) which often register on pitch-tracking software as splitters.
“You know what? He has a lot of confidence in his fastball, and that’s where it gets him over the hump,” Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “It’s the ultimate challenge: Mano a mano. Here you go, here’s my fastball. Let’s see if you can hit it.
“Let’s not forget the fact he threw a nice changeup to Giancarlo Stanton (in the ninth inning Monday night) and got a double play. So there is more than a fastball in his arsenal. But I think he trusts his fastball. He’s going to be old-school: Can you hit my fastball?”
Throughout Doolittle’s career, the answer to that question has been a resounding no.
Opponents own a .201 batting average against Doolittle’s fastball throughout his career, and that number has dropped to .161 this season.
Given that kind of success rate, perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that Doolittle has actually been throwing his fastball more regularly since joining the Nationals. In six appearances since he was acquired with teammate Ryan Madson from the A’s, he has thrown a fastball an astounding 105 times out of 109 total pitches, a 96.3 percent rate. The other four pitches were all changeups. He has yet to throw a slider while wearing a Nationals uniform.
Not that he doesn’t think about breaking out that breaking ball on a regular basis.
“Trust me, there’s times when I’m out there and I’m thinking: ‘This is a perfect time to throw a slider to this guy, but my slider doesn’t match up well with this guy,’ ” Doolittle said. “That’s why I really want to develop something, and I work on it a lot. At some point, it’s just going to come down to throwing it in a game and seeing what the result is. And that’s kind of a scary thing, especially when I’m pitching in high-leverage situations late in games. I can’t really be like: ‘Well, I’ve been working on this changeup, let me try it now. We’re up one in the ninth.’ It’s not conducive to that environment.”
Maddux, in the 2 1/2 weeks since he has been working with Doolittle, has talked to him about trying to incorporate his other pitches. “Encouraging him to open up his avenues,” the coach said. But Maddux also knows what everyone else in the league knows: Doolittle’s fastball is far and away his best pitch, and he’s been incredibly successful throwing it, so no need to completely reinvent the wheel here.
Which doesn’t mean it’s easy for the left-hander to be so successful as a one-pitch pitcher. When batters know what’s coming, they can sit on it, theoretically giving themselves an advantage. That’s where Doolittle’s scouting, preparation and ability to command his fastball wherever he wants make the difference.
“It comes down to location and execution,” he said. “Unfortunately because of the way I pitch, using the fastball as much as I do, I have to rely on executing and locating the ball. And that doesn’t necessarily mean always throwing a strike. If I can come in off the plate, move a guy off the plate, change his eyes, and then come back away, that can be a really effective sequence. But that’s how I’ve been able to keep guys off-balance, by moving the ball around and not letting them get too comfortable.”
Maddux raves about the work Doolittle puts into his craft, pointing out how rare it is for a pitcher of this type to spend as much time preparing off the field as he does on it.
“He’s refreshing in that he’s a cerebral guy,” Maddux said. “You would think that a one-pitch monster with a fastball is gonna keep it just as plain and simple as that. But he said that as he learns the league and learns new batters, he’ll understand what better to do with them. He’s in there. He’s watching video. He has a heads-up, so even though he hasn’t faced them in a game, he’s seen them on video and he already has his gameplan for how he wants to approach those guys.”
Doolittle does intend - as he does every season - to spend time this winter working on his off-speed pitches, hoping he can find some new comfort level that he’s willing to use in a game. After spending his entire career with one organization, he’s hoping perhaps the Nationals staff can offer whatever has been missing to allow him to figure it out.
“That’s something I work every offseason on a lot,” he said. “Maybe with new verbiage, new schools of thought, new sets of eyes, maybe they can help me with something that I haven’t thought of yet.”
Until then, Doolittle will continue doing what he does best. After failing to make it to the big leagues as a hitter, he has found a way not only to make it as a pitcher, but to thrive as one.
All thanks to the one pitch everyone knows is coming yet few can actually hit with any authority.
“I think what’s different with him is that he was a hitter,” Maddux said. “He understands that hitting a well-located fastball is a tough thing to do. And that plays to his approach. I think that’s why he is so aggressive with his fastball. Because apparently he couldn’t hit a good one!”