WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Sean Doolittle will be the Nationals closer to open the season. That declaration, made this afternoon by new manager Davey Martinez, did not constitute earth-shattering news. Given the way Doolittle performed late last season, and given the current makeup of the Nats bullpen, that was a foregone conclusion.
The more notable development this season for Doolittle would involve not when he pitches but what he pitches.
After firmly establishing himself as a top-notch reliever who relies almost exclusively on his fastball, Doolittle is hoping to become a more complete pitcher this year. He already began weaving more changeups into his repertoire last season; now he’s hoping to incorporate more sliders.
“People think just because I throw a ton of fastballs, maybe I’m just stubborn,” the lefty said. “But I try really hard to develop the secondary stuff, because it could make me so much more efficient.”
Doolittle threw 100 percent fastballs in eight of his 30 appearances with the Nationals. He threw 90 percent or more fastballs in another six appearances. And when he did deviate, he usually turned to his changeup. Doolittle threw a slider in only eight games with the Nats.
He said, though, that he intended to try to work more on both of his secondary pitches during the offseason. And he arrived here in Florida this month feeling as confident in his slider as he perhaps has ever been.
Some of that is the result of some new grips he has worked on, with some advice from new pitching coach Derek Lilliquist. Some of it, though, is the result of meteorology. Seriously.
Having spent every previous spring of his professional career pitching at the Athletics complex in Phoenix, Doolittle is for the first time now training in Florida. And the difference in humidity and elevation has helped him feel better about his breaking ball.
“A lot of guys say they have trouble with their breaking stuff in spring training (in Arizona),” he said. “I would throw it a lot in games, and I never really could get good feedback on it where I felt confident taking it into the regular season. I always felt like it was this work-in-progress. Maybe here with a little humidity in the air, being at sea level, maybe I’m starting to get a better feel for it. The early results are encouraging.”
Doolittle threw several sliders this morning during his bullpen session and was pleased with the results. He intends to keep working on it and try to incorporate more of them into his actual game appearances beginning next week.
With that, though, comes a caveat for anyone who pays only cursory attention to Grapefruit League games: Don’t try to evaluate Doolittle based on his overall spring performance, or certainly not his ERA. He has much different priorities this year.
“Yeah, this is a disclaimer: I’m working on some things,” he said with a laugh. “In past spring trainings, I’ve done a lot of work on back fields, to try to work on that stuff and take my lumps behind the scenes. But by the end of spring training, the last couple outings I tend to treat like normal games to gear up for the season. But yeah, I’m at a spot in my career where I have a chance to continue to develop, and that’s what spring training is all about.”
Indeed, Doolittle has never found himself in a more comfortable position entering spring training. He’s not competing for a roster spot. He’s not even competing for a role within the bullpen. He already knows he’ll be pitching the ninth inning, so nobody with the Nationals is going to be making decisions on him this spring based on how many runs or hits he gives up.
“He’s good,” new manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s got closer mentality. I’ll tell you now, he’s our closer. Right now, he’s got a good fastball. He’s got a live arm, and he likes to throw it. And for me, it’s letting those guys be who they are. He knows how to get guys out.”
And this year, he hopes to be getting more guys out with something other than a fastball.