Sean Doolittle, who helped reshape the Nationals bullpen into a unit worthy of a World Series title and in the process became a fan favorite for his performance, big personality and community involvement, announced his retirement today.
The popular left-hander, who turns 37 next week, was hoping to make it back to pitch for the Nationals after a partially torn elbow ligament cut short his 2022 season only five games in. But his minor league rehab from the internal brace procedure he underwent last summer was disrupted by a knee injury earlier this summer, and he made the decision not to attempt another comeback in 2024.
“After 11 incredible seasons playing the sport I love, I can say with gratitude and a full heart that I am retiring from baseball,” he said in a statement announcing the decision.
Doolittle will hold a press conference at Nationals Park this afternoon and will be recognized during tonight’s game against the Braves.
Acquired via trade with fellow reliever Ryan Madson from the Athletics in July 2017 for Blake Treinen, Jesús Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse, Doolittle had an immediate impact on the team’s fortunes, teaming up with Madson and Brandon Kintzler (acquired from the Twins that same month) to turn the league’s worst bullpen into a legitimate strength.
Doolittle would proceed to post a 2.92 ERA, 1.007 WHIP and 75 saves (third-most in club history behind Chad Cordero and Drew Storen) over parts of five seasons, earning an All-Star selection in 2018.
He recorded a career-high 29 saves in 2019 but wound up on the injured list in August due to overuse covering for a bullpen that had no other reliable arms, and by the time he returned Daniel Hudson had assumed the closer’s role entering the postseason.
Doolittle still wound up playing an integral role in the Nationals’ October 2019 championship run, recording the final out of the National League Division Series and one save a piece in the NL Championship Series and World Series while allowing only seven batters to reach base in 10 1/3 innings. All told, he finished with a 1.35 ERA, 0.600 WHIP and 12-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 12 postseason appearances during his Nats career. He never once blew an inherited lead.
“From the moment I was traded here, you welcomed my wife and me to your city and your team,” Doolittle wrote, addressing Nationals fans directly in his statement. “So much so that we decided to make D.C. our forever home. The 2019 World Series title will always be the highlight of my career because we were able to share it with you. I don’t have the words to tell you how grateful I am for your support during my time here in D.C.”
All the wear-and-tear of his heavy workload from 2017-19 may have taken its toll on Doolittle, who was never the same pitcher after that. He appeared in 11 games during the shortened 2020 season, with a 5.87 ERA, then became a free agent and signed with the Reds that winter. He made 56 appearances for Cincinnati and Seattle in 2021 with a 4.53 ERA, then got a chance to return to the Nationals in 2022.
Doolittle’s return to D.C. got off to a fantastic start, with six scoreless April appearances offering hope he might still have the ability to dominate in the big leagues. But he felt a twinge in his elbow after that, learned he had a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament and ultimately decided to undergo an internal brace procedure, one that is less invasive than Tommy John surgery and one that he hoped would allow him to return this year.
Doolittle, though, never made it back to the majors. He pitched in 11 minor league games, struggling to regain velocity, then injured his knee and was unable to get healthy by season’s end.
Originally the Athletics’ first-round pick in the 2007 draft out of the University of Virginia (where he was a first baseman and teammates with Ryan Zimmerman), Doolittle became a full-time pitcher in 2012. He wound up making 463 big league appearances, all in relief, for the A’s, Nationals, Reds and Mariners, finishing with a 3.20 ERA, 1.014 WHIP and 112 saves.
Alongside his wife, Eireann Dolan, Doolittle became one of the most active players in Nationals history in the community, supporting a host of causes including veterans’ affairs, LGBTQ rights, refugees, anti-bullying and the team’s Youth Baseball Academy. He was twice nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award.
“Sean and his wife, Eireann, are great examples of individuals who have used their platform and place in life to advocate for others, and I have no doubt that their impact will continue long beyond Sean’s playing career,” managing principal owner Mark Lerner said in a statement. “We are so happy that they’ve made Washington, D.C., their home, and we hope to see them around the ballpark frequently.”