Last night, Nationals’ closer Sean Doolittle was back on the mound — again — and he once again caused Nats fans to reach for Zestril, Maalox, and bourbon after he walked the Brewers lead-off hitter on four pitches — none of which were close while the reigning MVP, Christian Yelich, stood twenty feet away in the on-deck circle. Doo persevered and earned his 28th save in heart thumping style to preserve a 2-1 win for his team. The circuitous road to that 28th save includes five painful blown saves and four excruciating losses, but Doolittle has taken on more work than almost every closer with at least 20 saves except for Josh Hader and Will Smith. Hader is only 25 years old and Smith is 30 while Doolittle will celebrate his 33rd birthday next month.
When Doolittle took the mound last night, he added onto his MLB leading 49th game finished which seems like a recipe for disaster as he reached 51 2/3 innings and we are only in the third week of August! All of those early season innings when he carried that bullpen trying to find its identity while failing and eventually DFA’ing the two setup men who were supposed to be the bridge to Doolittle instead put extra pressure on Doolittle for months as the innings and pitch count piled on. The two-time All-Star has not pitched this many innings since he was a spry 28 year old back in 2014 as a member of the Oakland A’s. Doolitte has thrown 917 pitches this season which is an inefficient 17.75 pitches per inning. In that entire 2014 season, Doolittle only threw 928 pitches at 14.81 pitches per inning. In fact, Doolittle will almost certainly set a personal record for most pitches thrown in a season surpassing the 1,020 he threw in 2013.
So that begs the question to what are the Nationals doing with Doo? Great question. When his manager, Dave Martinez, is asked that question the responses are usually that “he said he was good to go” and that could be seen to be a possible conflict of interest because of a clause in Doolittle’s current contract that he signed with the Oakland Athletics in 2014 that included an “out” clause if he finishes 100 games between 2018 and 2019, the team option for 2020 would vest into a mutual option instead of a team option. After last night, he is now only 16 games finished from being able to declare himself a free agent after the season. None of this means Doolittle would ever ask to be in a game if he is not ready which pins much of this on Davey Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo who put Doolittle into games because the bullpen was the weakest in baseball for April and May.
Every time Doolittle tells his manager he is “good to go” he inches closer to that 100 games finished, and there are times Doolittle has not looked “good to go” and the stats back that up. Doolittle’s K/BB rate is now a poor 4.46 for a closer, and he tied his career high in walks last night. While the fastball velo is fine at times at 94-95 mph, the movement and location on it has made it more hitable than what we have seen at times, and he had zero swing and misses on his fastball last night.
“I mean, you play this game for a really long time, and any time you have even a little control over your fate, over the direction your career goes, that’s something that we all hope to have,” Doolittle told Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post. “At the very least a couple times in our career. I actually didn’t know what the number was, how many more I needed, until recently. It wasn’t on my mind.”
Getting to 100 games finished seemed like pie in the sky especially when that contract was signed in 2014 in Oakland, Doolittle was not even the primary closer. Doolittle’s agent, Jason Cook, who asked for that special 100 game clause in his contract might have scored his client a huge raise next year, but Mike Rizzo gave up prospect Sheldon Neuse, top prospect Jesus Luzardo and future All-Star Blake Treinen for years of control of Doolittle at controllable dollars like his current $6.5 million salary which also be the same next year in a team option, but now the Nationals could be in the market for a closer next season that few foresaw. In this backloaded deal, it was the Oakland A’s who were the big winner in the trade as they had those years they were paying him under $3 million for every year they had him.
Doolittle could make more money next year as a free agent than he earned his entire career so yes, you may choose to be skeptical every time Doolittle says “yes I’m good to go” because he has millions riding on reaching that 100 game milestone but he is also risking serious arm damage due to overuse if he is not good to go and that is a big risk to his health and a team with postseason aspirations.
With a 1.34 WHIP which is the worst of Doolittle’s career in a measure of how many runners he puts on base each inning, his career WHIP is 0.951, and these are warning signs that his 3.66 ERA is not totally based on bad luck, and maybe Doolittle’s saves are more a function of being a crafty veteran to get through some of these games with the warning signs in those game logs.
“If Doo needs a day, he’ll get a day, and then we go somewhere else,” Martinez said. “If Doo is available, Doo’s our closer. I got all the confidence in the world in him.”
Statistically, Doolittle is just above the average for saves converted at 84.8% compared to the MLB average of 84.03%. He also has the 5th highest amount of saves in the Majors, but compared to his peers only 64.4% of Doolittle’s innings have been expended for save situations, and compare that to Aroldis Chapman who has spent 80.9% towards saves you can see that Doolittle is also taking on innings in non-save situations. If you want to track the closers, this is the link to do it on.
In what some refer to as the “Cult of the Closer” where the closer pitches that final inning regardless of whether they are on their game or not, Martinez has shown no indication that he would pull Doolittle out of a game like last week in New York when he blew a 3-run save and then took the loss. So as a fan, keep the blood pressure medication, antacids, and booze close by as this is going to be a wild ride to the end, and we have to hope that the Nationals braintrust knows what they are doing and Doolittle’s arm will be “money” into October!