Sean Doolittle’s New Role: Evolving The Pitching Coach Role????

When Steve and I do Point-CounterPoint articles, we typically have plenty of time for our back and forth. This one is different because of this breaking news on Sean Doolittle joining the coaching staff as a pitching strategist. So both Steve and I collaborated on this article — but without the typical back and forth.

As someone who spent his career dealing with analytics, I find Doolittle’s new role to be interesting. Communications is essential to effectively leveraging analytics as well as realizing that each player is an individual. Sean is an incredible communicator. And he obviously is a great pitcher. Per the team’s press release, Doolittle will serve as a liaison between the analytics department and the pitching staff, while assisting the manager and pitching coach with strategy, mental preparation and mechanics. Clearly they are using Doolittle’s strengths and what he learned as a pitcher, and especially a player that endured numerous injuries. Mental preparation was always a key part of Doolittle’s success as well as that 4-seam fastball that had an optical illusion of ‘rise’ on the pitch.

Doolittle was a player who embraced the analytics later in his career, and how his pitches reacted to spin rates, which led to his success as a reliever, and eventually as a closer. In September of last year, he finally announced his retirement as a player. Many had hoped he would take on a role with the team, and this is a big step forward to work with the many young pitchers, and veterans, in his new official role which is still evolving in everything he will take on.

Sean Doolittle was always an extremely talented pitcher, but he is also one of the most intelligent baseball minds you can find. We’re incredibly excited to have him on our staff to help guide our talented group of young pitchers.”

— Mike Rizzo

As the 41st overall pick in the 2007 draft by the Oakland Athletics, he was actually drafted as a big bat out of the University of Virginia. The A’s converted him to a reliever, and Doo debuted with the 2012 A’s with a lot of success and one of the top lefty relievers in the game. By his third MLB season in 2014, he became the team’s closer. He is a two-time All-Star — one with the A’s and one with the Nats. It was July 16, 2017 when Doolittle was traded by the Oakland Athletics along with Ryan Madson to the Washington Nationals for Jesús LuzardoSheldon Neuse and Blake Treinen.

A little over two years after the trade, Doolittle was able to hoist the World Series trophy as a key part of that 2019 team for Washington. He quickly became a fan favorite, and the Nats brought him back on two free agent deals before the 2022 and 2023 seasons, but unfortunately the wear-and-tear on his body caught up with him, and Doo was limited to just 5 1/3 innings in those two seasons. His retirement came as no surprise on his Instagram account, and many speculated that he would stay with the team in some capacity.

For his career, Doolittle had 115 saves, and the two most important saves came in the NLCS and World Series in 2019. He also had a career-high 29 saves during that 2019 season. Where would that team have been without him? Along with Daniel Hudson who was acquired mid-season in 2019, they made a great tandem in the back of that bullpen.

“I can’t thank the Lerner family, Mike Rizzo and Davey Martinez enough for all they’ve done for me and my family. I love the Nationals and Washington D.C., and look forward to this new challenge while remaining an active member of an organization that means so much to me.”

— Sean Doolittle

I (Don) see this move as potentially a significant change to what the role of the pitching coach is. The evolution/revolution in the use of analytics in baseball has been impressive. But what is missing (again, IMO) is the recognition that the integration of the analytics folks and the SMEs (Subject Matter Experts – in this case, the coaches, and more importantly, the players) so they operate as a single entity. The idea that the analytics team is distinct and separate from the folks responsible for day-to-day operations just makes no sense to me.

So my take on this is that the Nats are evolving the role of the pitching coach. Doo will be the analyst and communicator who focuses on tactics and strategy — in other words being the lynchpin of that integration. As a result, I suspect Hickey, as the current and traditional pitching coach, will be tasked with focusing on just the mechanics of pitching with Doolittle adding his two cents on the analytics portion of those mechanics.

You might ask, why two guys? Why not have Doolittle do both? The answer to me is simple: There are plenty of folks who can teach mechanics. There aren’t many who can do what Doolittle seems to be tasked with. Thus, you want him to spend all of his time on what his, hopefully, distinctive competence is.

This entry was posted in Analysis, Breaking, CoachingStaff, Doolittle, Feature. Bookmark the permalink.