Class off the field, Doolittle was critical to Nats' on-field success

Because his final year-plus was beset by injuries and inconsistent performances on the mound, we might tend to forget just how great Sean Doolittle was for the majority of his Nationals career.

Make no mistake: Doolittle not only was the anchor of the Nats bullpen, but one of the most dominant relievers in baseball for a prolonged stretch.

The left-hander made his Nationals debut July 18, 2017. From that moment through May 15, 2019 - just before the first of his multiple meltdowns against the Mets - he made 91 appearances and posted a 1.72 ERA (second-best among all major league relievers) and a 0.819 WHIP (best). Opponents hit a paltry .174 against him with a .479 OPS (also best in the majors). He converted 52 of 55 save opportunities, a 94.5 percent success rate that was best of any reliever with more than five saves during that span.

Doolittle-Gomes-After-Save-Red-at-LAD-Sidebar.jpgThere's a valid argument to be made that Doolittle, who signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Reds on Tuesday, was the best reliever in baseball for that stretch of nearly two years.

That he was so effective while essentially throwing nothing but fastballs made the feat all the more impressive.

Stop us if you've heard this one before, but the Nationals bullpen was in disarray before Doolittle arrived. The 2017 relief corps ranked as the majors' worst, with former manager Dusty Baker cycling through Blake Treinen, Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover in the closer's role at various points.

Somehow it didn't prevent that team from running away in the National League East. Even with a disastrous bullpen, the Nats entered the All-Star break with a 52-36 record and a 9 1/2-game lead over the Braves.

They would've won the division no matter what, but general manager Mike Rizzo knew it wouldn't be good enough come October. So two days after returning from the All-Star break, he acquired Doolittle and Ryan Madson together from the Athletics for Treinen and prospects Jesús Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse. Two weeks later, he also picked up setup man Brandon Kintzler from the Twins for minor league lefty Tyler Watson.

And thus did the "Law Firm" bullpen of Kintzler, Madson and Doolittle transform the worst relief corps in the majors into one of the best. Prior to the Doolittle-Madson trade, the Nationals bullpen had a 5.23 ERA, a 1.463 WHIP and 14 blown saves. After the trade, that group had a 3.40 ERA, a 1.160 WHIP and three blown saves.

Alas, the group couldn't sustain that level of success over the long haul. Madson struggled mightily in 2018 before he was traded to the Dodgers. Kintzler had some ups and downs before he was dealt to the Cubs. And though Doolittle was as good as ever, he wound up missing time with a foot injury that proved far more severe than initially believed.

And by midsummer 2019, Doolittle didn't look the same. What happened? In all likelihood, he was overworked.

Not that manager Davey Martinez had much choice. For much of 2018 and certainly through the first four months of 2019, Doolittle was the only reliable member of the Nationals bullpen. The only one. Martinez couldn't help but put him on the mound every time his team was in a tight game late, often for more than one inning.

The July 31 acquisition of Daniel Hudson helped a lot. And though Doolittle needed some time off that August, he returned strong in September and pitched brilliantly in October. In nine postseason appearances covering 10 1/3 innings, he gave up just two runs while allowing only seven batters to reach base. Add that to three scoreless appearances in the 2017 National League Division Series, and Doolittle is the proud owner of a 1.35 postseason ERA for the Nats.

His 2020 numbers weren't nearly as good, and at one point, things got so bad Martinez had to hold him out for all but the dreaded low-leverage situations a la Trevor Rosenthal in April 2019. It left a bad taste in everyone's mouths and left plenty of folks with a final image of Doolittle as a hindrance to the team's success instead of a vital piece of the puzzle.

Through it all, though, he carried himself with class. He never made excuses. He was always accountable to teammates and reporters, as much as anyone in that clubhouse has ever been.

Doolittle was as fine a representative of the Nationals as the organization could ever hope to boast. They'll miss him this year, no doubt.

Not just because of the way he conducted himself off the field. But because he was an awfully good pitcher on the mound for most of his time in D.C.

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