Dramatic resurgence has turned Doolittle back into top reliever

Ask Sean Doolittle if there’s one thing he can point to above all else to explain his dramatic return to form this season, and the answer might catch you off-guard.

“To be honest, I think it’s my brain,” the Nationals reliever said over the weekend in Pittsburgh.

Wait, even when trying to explain how his velocity has increased?

“Yeah,” he insisted. “Because I think over the last couple years, when you’re not throwing with confidence and you’re thinking: ‘Where do my hands need to be? Or where does my front side need to be when I break my hands? Or how am I moving?’ Your body can’t do a thing like that and compete at the same time. You can’t move quickly. You’re not going to have the same conviction behind the ball. That’s what I meant when I said it’s about confidence.”

Whatever the reason, the difference in results is impossible to ignore. Five appearances into the season, Doolittle has yet to allow a batter to reach base. He has faced 14 of them. He has retired 14 of them (six via strikeout). He has thrown only 46 pitches in total, 35 of them strikes.

“He’s been good,” manager Davey Martinez said, knocking on his wood desk out of superstition. “So let’s keep him right there.”

It’s only five appearances, of course, but the overwhelming sense of optimism from Doolittle and the rest of the Nationals is not without merit. The 35-year-old's fastball is averaging 94 mph, the highest it’s been since 2018. He’s getting hitters to chase when he throws it up in the zone. And he’s throwing far more breaking balls than ever before (22.5 percent of his pitches, compared to only 5.8 percent in 2019).

The newfound commitment to that breaking ball is why at least one fellow pitcher believes Doolittle so far in 2022 might even be better than the peak version of himself from four or five years ago.

“The first thing I said to him when he came in the clubhouse (Friday night) was that curveball was unbelievable. Or slider, whatever he wants to call it,” Erick Fedde said. “I said that’s such a weapon now and (you) have a lot of confidence in that. … When you’re a good pitcher that’s dominated with one pitch for so long, to be able to add more into that, it’s even more exciting.”

It’s been at least nearly three years since Doolittle enjoyed any kind of significant success like this. He dominated as the Nationals closer early in 2019 but wore down that summer because he was Martinez’s only reliable reliever. He bounced back to pitch well in the postseason, but by that point Daniel Hudson had assumed primary closer responsibilities.

The shortened 2020 season wasn’t kind to Doolittle, who had a 5.87 ERA in 11 games and suffered multiple injuries before becoming a free agent. He signed with the Reds prior to the 2021 season and continued to struggle, with a 4.46 ERA in 45 games before finishing with the Mariners and posting comparable numbers in 11 more appearances.

The Nationals took a chance on him this spring, signing him to a major league deal worth a guaranteed $1.5 million, and he’s already made it look like a smart investment.

Healthy and having made some adjustments to his setup and delivery off the mound, Doolittle is pitching with the kind of conviction he hasn’t experienced in several years.

“I feel really confident attacking the zone with my stuff, and that wasn’t always the case in 2020 and large parts of last season,” he said. “It helps that the (velocity) is back a little bit. But really I’ve been able to execute. And when you have a game plan and you execute and you get good results, that builds a lot of confidence.”

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