Sean Doolittle Is Finally Healthy and Ready for the Playoffs

The oft-injured Nationals reliever has gotten back on track in 2017, and should play a huge role in Washington's postseason.

For the first three seasons of his career, Sean Doolittle was as good of a reliever as you could find, a devastating strikeout artist who was more than just a left-handed specialist for the Oakland Athletics.

Doolittle made a name for himself with a stellar 2014 season, a performance that earned him a five-year, $10.5 million extension. It also marked the last healthy season he would have in some time.

Beginning with a partially torn rotator cuff announced in January of 2015, Doolittle and his left arm were relegated to the disabled list a multitude of times in the 2015 and 2016 seasons. (Much more about that below.) However, in a mostly healthy 2017, the fireballer has looked like the Doolittle of old, both for the A's before the trade deadline, and for the Washington Nationals after it.

And with the postseason around the corner, the Nats couldn't be happier.

Early Career Dominance

Doolittle had three very effective seasons before his lost 2015 campaign, including a dominant 2014 campaign, as seen below:

Year Batters Faced ERA DRA FIP Strikeout Rate Walk Rate
2012 191 3.04 3.06 2.08 31.4% 5.8%
2013 266 3.13 3.35 2.71 22.6% 4.9%
2014 236 2.73 2.16 1.71 37.7% 3.4%

The obvious outlier here is his 2013 season, even though it was still successful. His DRA (deserved run average, which figures which runs the pitcher deserves to give up -- read a more detailed description here) is a decent amount above his ERA, and his strikeout numbers went way down. It is not like he faced less batters either -- the 266 hitters he saw that season is still a career high. Despite that, he was still a good reliever.

In an excellent 2014, his strikeout to walk ratio (K-BB%) was a gaudy 34.3 percent -- his DRA and FIP suggest that his ERA is actually unlucky, and that his ERA was far too high. He was an elite reliever.

The sky appeared to be the limit for Doolittle. Until it didn't.

Two Disrupted Seasons

Doolittle's 2015 got off to as inauspicious start as a season can for a pitcher. In January, it was announced that he would have a delayed start to his season due to a partially torn rotator cuff. The injury plagued him all season, and he threw just 13.2 innings before he was shut down for good.

He pitched for much of 2016, but was ineffective. Facing 155 batters over 39 innings pitched, Doolittle posted career worsts in ERA (3.23), DRA (3.80), and FIP (3.45). His strikeout rate dipped to 29 percent, and his home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB) skyrocketed to 11.5 percent, after never being higher than 6.3 percent.

He had a tough go of it in 2016, which is understandable considering he missed basically all of the year before with a shoulder injury. The fact that he hurt his shoulder again, forcing him to miss two months in the middle of the year, definitely did not help his cause.

His partially torn rotator cuff cost him all of one season and severely hampered the next. This year, Doolittle has enjoyed (mostly) good health for the first time since 2014, and the numbers show it.

Feeling Strangely Fine

In 2017 Doolittle has put together 48.1 excellent innings (185 batters faced). His ERA (2.61), DRA (2.55), and FIP (2.39) are superb, and his strikeout rate has risen to 31.4 percent. He has kept the walks down (4.9 percent), and has done an excellent job of eliminating hard contact (20.3 percent hard-hit rate).

One of the things he has thrived on his season is a newfound ability to cause batters to chase. Batters are swinging at nearly half of his pitches out of the zone (46.2 percent) over six percent higher than it has ever been.

For Sean Doolittle, the patience and perseverance paid off. And for the playoff-bound Washington Nationals, the timing couldn't be better.