A Cincinnati Reds offseason that has been defined by the subtractions the team has made and the additions it has not finally got a change of pace Tuesday morning, when The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans reported that the team would soon be adding left-handed reliever Sean Doolittle to its bullpen.
Doolittle’s contract, the terms of which are not yet known, comes months after the Reds dumped two other longtime closers — Raisel Iglesias and Archie Bradley — in cost-cutting moves. Because of his considerable experience in that role, Cincinnati is likely hoping he wins the closer’s job out of spring training, allowing Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims to serve as stoppers earlier in games. As solid as Doolittle’s track record is in the back of the bullpen, however, his 2021 season remains an unpredictable one.
Doolittle, 34, is a nine-year major league veteran who has thrown 401 games for the Oakland A’s and Washington Nationals, all of which came in relief. For a significant stretch of that career, he was one of the most dominant late-inning arms in baseball. From 2012-18, Doolittle held a 2.83 ERA and 2.40 FIP in 328 innings, accumulating 10.3 fWAR that ranked seventh among all relievers in that time. At his best, he could maintain a K/BB ratio of 5-to-1 or better while simultaneously suppressing home runs, despite being a pitcher who allows a lot of fly balls.
Doolittle’s fortunes have changed a bit over the last couple seasons, which means this deal is likely for one year at a bargain. A 1.60 ERA and 1.89 FIP in 2018 turned into a 4.05 ERA and 4.25 FIP the very next year, without a clear-cut reason for the decline in production.
One theory, which I discussed in a story I wrote in September 2019, was Doolittle was experiencing fatigue after being asked to throw consecutive days more frequently than he had in the past, and was piling up more innings than he was accustomed to because of the lack of other good relief options in the Nationals’ bullpen. Another possible explanation, however, was more sinister — that Doolittle’s declining velocity was beginning to catch up with him. Once averaging over 95 mph with his fastball as recently as 2016, his velocity had begun to taper off gradually, falling to 93.5 mph on average in 2019. Diminishing velocity is never good news, but that didn’t necessarily mean Doolittle’s circumstances were cause for panic — he’d put together a career-best season the year before with a very similar fastball reading.
Last year, though, the velocity problem wasn’t so easy to ignore. In 7.2 innings, Doolittle allowed five runs on nine hits, including three homers, with two walks and six strikeouts. His average velocity had fallen all the way down to 90.5 mph. The obvious caveat is that he wasn’t healthy — he spent two weeks early in the season sidelined with right knee fatigue, then returned for just six more games before injuring his right oblique. On one hand, that gives you a physical explanation for his declining stuff, rather than simply wondering if age was quickly sapping him of his talents. On the other, oblique injuries are no small thing for pitchers to contend with. Doolittle’s sharp drop in velocity may have been caused by an external force, but that still doesn’t mean it won’t be permanent.
It’s a bit surprising, then, to see the Reds bring in Doolittle, whose physical red flags are accompanied by other traits that aren’t in line with what the organization has targeted in recent seasons. Though his four-seam fastball carries exceptionally well up in the zone, he doesn’t possess anything approaching elite spin rates. He also has a batted ball profile that could be dangerous in his new home. Since 2016, among pitchers who have thrown at least 200 innings, Doolittle has the third-highest fly-ball rate. He’s managed to live that way, however, because of how few of those flies leave the yard. His 10.3% HR/FB rate ranks 23rd-lowest in the game since 2016, out of a sample that includes 320 pitchers. In that same time frame, Reds pitchers have allowed homers on 17.6% of fly balls at Great American Ball Park. It’s quite difficult to make a living as a fly ball pitcher in Cincinnati.
Obviously, though, the Reds see Doolittle as a worthwhile project anyway. Their organization has overseen notable velocity bumps for several pitchers over the last couple of seasons, from Michael Lorenzen and Tyler Mahle to Anthony DeSclafani and Tejay Antone. Restoring some heat is extra important in the case of Doolittle, who relies on his fastball more than nearly any other pitcher. Even after backing off of it a tad in 2020 in favor of mixing in more sliders, he still threw in on more than 81% of his pitches. In each of the previous four seasons, that rate was over 87%. If the team can help him find the stuff that once allowed him to strike out well over 30% of the hitters he faced, he may not allow enough contact for home run luck to become a major factor.
Doolittle’s 2021 season could go in any number of directions. He could regain his fastball and close games effectively for the entire season in Cincinnati, or he could show up to training camp struggling to hit 90 mph on the radar gun and have his career extinguished quickly. He won’t be enough to replace the talent the team has willingly cut bait on to save on costs, and he unfortunately cannot play shortstop. But he might yet have some firepower remaining in his left arm, and his voice in baseball’s labor issues and overall generosity make him an incredibly easy player to root for. It will be nice to see him get a shot.