Overworked early, Doolittle rested and returned to form late

As our offseason coverage kicks into high gear, we’re going to review each significant player on the Nationals roster. We continue today with Sean Doolittle, who was overused early, saw his season fall apart during the late summer but then returned healthy and effective at the end.

Doolittle-Pumps-Fist-After-Save-vs-COL-White-Sidebar.jpgPLAYER REVIEW: SEAN DOOLITTLE

Age on opening day 2020: 33

How acquired: Traded with Ryan Madson from Athletics for Blake Treinen, Jesús Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse, July 2017

MLB service time: 7 years, 122 days

2019 salary: $6 million

Contract status: $6.5 million club option was picked up for 2020, free agent in 2021

2019 stats: 6-5, 4.05 ERA, 63 G, 29 SV, 60 IP, 63 H, 27 R, 27 ER, 11 HR, 15 BB, 66 SO, 2 HBP, 1.300 WHIP, 113 ERA+, 4.25 FIP, 0.7 fWAR, 1.0 bWAR

2019 postseason stats: 0-0, 1.74 ERA, 9 G, 2 SV, 10 1/3 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 HR, 1 BB, 8 SO, 0 HBP, 0.677 WHIP

Quotable: “He got killed early, man. He was gassed. You could see it in his body. And when he came off the IL, he kind of had a different life to him. Especially from when I got here ‘til then. You knew he was going to come back, and come back strong. He’s a pro, man. He’s done it for so long. And he’s pitched the ninth inning for a long time. He knows how to get it done.” - Daniel Hudson, on Doolittle

2019 analysis: For four months, the Nationals had only one sure thing in their bullpen. It was Doolittle, who because of his relief mates’ massive struggles was forced into excessive pitching duties out of necessity. He was scored upon in only two of his first 18 outings, but he was needed to record more than three outs in five of those games, a bad omen for what was to come.

Even with the heavy workload, Doolittle remained highly effective for most of the season. Especially when he didn’t have to face the Mets. Ten of the 27 runs he allowed in the regular season, a whopping 37 percent, and three of his six blown saves came against New York. Though his 4.05 ERA was unsightly, throw out his games versus the Mets and that number drops to 2.94.

It was an Aug. 17 appearance against the Brewers, though, that served as a final straw. Doolittle faced five batters that night and served up homers to three of them. The next morning, he was placed on the injured list, officially with tendinitis in his right knee but unofficially because he simply needed a break.

The Nationals eased the lefty back into the mix in September, so he didn’t exactly enter the postseason in peak form. But once he actually took the mound in October, it was clear he was back to his old self. Doolittle was electric throughout the postseason, whether pitching the seventh, eighth or ninth inning, never blowing a lead and rediscovering the unhittable high fastball that has been his calling card for years.

2020 outlook: The Nationals could’ve declined Doolittle’s $6.5 million option and let him become a free agent. Given the way he finished strong, that was never in serious consideration. Besides, he remains the only sure thing in their bullpen at the moment, with Hudson now a free agent.

Doolittle’s ability to regain his elite form at the end of a long and exhausting season was an encouraging sign and evidence he’s still got the ability to blow away hitters with his high fastball. Equally encouraging, though, was his increased usage of his two off-speed pitches. He threw 62 sliders this season, nearly matching his total from the previous two years combined. And he threw a career-high 65 changeups. All of a sudden, he’s got a more comprehensive repertoire and the confidence to throw more than one pitch in big spots.

Still, Davey Martinez is going to have to be more careful with Doolittle next season, especially during the first half. He’s got to make sure his big lefty makes it through the year healthy and is in peak form for the stretch run. What’s the best way to ensure that happens? Give him more help and more sure things than the Nats had in their bullpen this season.

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