Doolittle's off-field impact was possible because of his on-field success

It’s easy to think of Sean Doolittle and immediately focus on everything he’s said and done off the baseball field, from his work in the community to his support for marginalized groups to his fascination with topics few people within the sport would find so compelling.

Ask Doolittle a question about Star Wars or The Grateful Dead, and it might be 15 minutes before he pauses to give you a chance to ask a second question. Name another major leaguer who can do that.

Doolittle became a fan favorite in Washington – and, prior to that, in Oakland – because of his personality, his self-deprecating humor and his genuine humanity. But let’s not gloss over this other indisputable fact: He was an awfully good big league pitcher for a long time, and surely one of the very best relievers in Nationals history.

Of the 22 relievers who have thrown at least 100 innings for the Nats since 2005, Doolittle ranks fourth in ERA (2.92), first in WHIP (1.007), third in strikeouts per nine innings (10.3), first in strikeout-to-walk rate (5.12) and third in saves (75).

Without that kind of on-field performance, Doolittle believes he could not have made the impact he did off the field.

“I was able to pitch well enough and contribute to wins on the field enough that whenever I ran my mouth, people listened or paid attention,” he said. “I felt like I had to back it up with performance on the field, so I would continue to have a platform. If I wasn’t pitching as well, it wouldn’t have had as much of an impact. That’s the reality of it.”

The acquisition of Doolittle (along with Ryan Madson) in July 2017 was among the most important moves Mike Rizzo has made in a decade and a half as Nationals general manager. He helped morph the majors’ worst bullpen into a legitimate strength, one that wasn’t at all to blame for yet another first-round exit by the franchise that October.

His best work, though, may have come during one of the club’s lowest points: the first half of the 2019 season. With the rest of his bullpen in shambles and his lineup ravaged by injuries, Davey Martinez had to ask for a superhuman effort from his one and only reliable reliever to try to eke out whatever wins were possible for a team desperate to overcome a 19-31 start.

Five times in April and May, Doolittle recorded four or more outs, earning the win or a save in four of those games. He saved both ends of a July doubleheader, after which his ERA stood at 2.72, on pace at that point to make 71 appearances for the season.

“I can remember a lot of times asking him if he could get five outs, and he would just look at me and say: ‘I’ll get as many outs as you need to win the game,’” Martinez recalled Friday. “He was that guy. He was amazing.”

That heavy workload, of course, eventually caught up with Doolittle. He struggled in late July and early August and wound up on the injured list with right knee tendinitis. The diagnosis seemed like a convenient excuse to give him a much-needed break. Four years later, it’s clear that was the beginning of the end for his knee.

By the time Doolittle came back in September, the Nationals had acquired Daniel Hudson and thrust the right-hander into the closer’s role. Doolittle would become option No. 2 out of the bullpen the rest of the way.

But what an option he was. He allowed only three hits and two walks in nine September appearances. Then he dominated throughout October, teaming up with Hudson to give Martinez a 1-2 punch in the late innings that never blew a lead throughout the club’s march to a World Series title.

All told, Doolittle’s postseason record (1.35 ERA, 0.600 WHIP, 12 strikeouts, one walk, zero blown saves in 12 total appearances in 2017 and 2019) was as good as it gets, in the moments that mattered more than any other.

“Forget all the ups and downs of the first half of the season. I’m going to be a guy for this team,” he said of his approach to those critical months. “I want Davey to feel like he can depend on me as we push for the playoffs and as we play into October. That was my whole mindset.”

Doolittle wanted to continue to be depended on after the World Series, but his body ultimately didn’t allow it. That seemingly benign knee injury that sidelined him for a couple weeks in August 2019? It never fully went away. And as he was trying to complete his recovery from an internal brace procedure in his left elbow in the minor leagues this summer, the knee finally gave way altogether, the patella tendon tearing.

“When I got the news about my knee, I knew what it meant for me,” he said. “I put everything that I had into the rehab processes over the last two years to try to pitch again here at Nats Park. I did everything I could.”

As much as he would’ve loved to pitch once more in front of D.C. fans, entering once more from the bullpen cart to a chorus of “Dooooo!,” it wasn’t meant to be. That scene still played out Friday night, but it wasn’t so he could pitch in a big league game. It was so he could throw out the ceremonial first pitch to Gerardo Parra and then watch the Nationals’ game against the Braves.

Doolittle’s playing career is over. He doesn’t know yet what his post-playing career will entail, but he made it clear he wants baseball to still be a part of it in some capacity.

He said all of this not with tears in his eyes but with a smile on his face. Doolittle knows he made a real impact on the field during an 11-year career. And he knows he can continue to make a real impact off it in the decades still to come.

“I think that’s why today, for me, this is a happy day,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets. I did everything that I could, and I enjoyed it.”

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