After difficult year, Doolittle faces uncertain future

Our offseason player review series continues today with Sean Doolittle, who was ineffective and injured much of this season and now faces an uncertain future.

PLAYER REVIEW: SEAN DOOLITTLE

Age on opening day 2021: 34

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

MLB service time: 8 years, 122 days

2020 salary: $6.5 million (prorated $2,407,407)

Contract status: Free agent

2020 stats: 0-2, 5.87 ERA, 11 G, 0 SV, 7 2/3 IP, 9 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 3 HR, 4 BB, 6 SO, 0 HBP, 1.696 WHIP, 81 ERA+, 8.28 FIP, -0.2 fWAR, 0.0 bWAR

Quotable: “It’s strange. I’ve never really had this feeling going into an offseason. It’s a little bit exciting, but given the circumstances, the way free agency has played out the last few years, the way the pandemic and this weird COVID season we’ve had, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding how that might impact things as well.” - Doolittle on being a free agent for the first time in his career

Thumbnail image for Doolittle-63-Throwing-White-Sidebar.jpg2020 analysis: There were concerns about Doolittle even before he took the mound for his first official appearance of the season. It was evident during summer training and the brief exhibition season that his velocity was not where it needed to be, and when the red light came on for real in late July, it quickly became evident this was going to be a problem.

Unable to throw his bread-and-butter elevated fastball anywhere close to the mid-90s range that made him so effective the previous three years, Doolittle got roughed up badly. Through his first five appearances, opponents were batting .438 and slugging 1.063 off him, with three homers. A whopping 86 percent of batted balls against him were line drives.

Manager Davey Martinez tried to take pressure off Doolittle and use him only in low-leverage spots, but then it became clear he wasn’t right physically and he was placed on the injured list with right knee fatigue. After two weeks off and some work at the alternate training site in Fredericksburg to change some of his pitching mechanics, Doolittle returned to the active roster.

The difference was striking. Though his fastball velocity ticked up only a couple notches, he began pitching more effectively down in the zone and using his seldom-used slider and changeup more regularly to get hitters out. The result: He didn’t allow a run in his final six appearances, opponents hit .143 with zero extra-base hits and only 17 percent of balls in play off him were line drives.

But then while throwing a pitch Sept. 10 against the Braves, Doolittle winced and grabbed his right side. He pulled an oblique muscle and had to go back on the IL, where he remained through the final two and a half weeks of an aggravating season.

2021 outlook: The timing of Doolittle’s struggles and injuries couldn’t have been worse. For the first time in his career, he’s a free agent, and the market for him probably won’t be anything close to what it would’ve been if he had a successful and healthy season.

Knowing he’s going to need to show general managers and scouts that he’s still got it, Doolittle plans to spend his offseason in Seattle training at Driveline Baseball, which has helped many pitchers maximize their velocity and results with mechanical and workout regimen changes. Whether it makes a difference for the veteran left-hander remains to be seen.

Is there any chance Doolittle could return to the Nationals? One way or another, they’re going to need a quality lefty in their bullpen, and there don’t appear to be any viable internal candidates. Given what they know about Doolittle both before and after his various injuries, they might be in a better position to evaluate what he’s still got left in the tank and whether a bounceback season is possible.

The Nats might well decide not to take the chance and look elsewhere for lefty relief help. But if they don’t find what they’re seeking, it’s not impossible to envision a scenario where they invite Doolittle back on a low-end deal with a lot of incentives and hope he can rediscover his old self.

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