By Jason Wojciechowski on April 5, 2013 at 8:35 AM
Aside from my rooting interest in the A's, I have inherited from Sam Miller (by reading his articles) a fascination with Sean Doolittle and his weirdly effective approach to pitching, which boils down to the following steps:
I don't want to undersell Doolittle's pitching ability, because he threw pitches in the strike at a well-above-average rate in 2012 (51.6 percent over the league average of 44.9 percent), so he's not walking out there with no idea of where the ball is going. (Of course, control is just a part of the battle—I could throw the ball in the zone all day, but I'd never strike anyone out.)
So here's what Doolittle, after throwing a whopping 87 percent four-seam fastballs last year, has done this season:
- 4/3, Robert Andino: fastball down the middle, fastball up and in, fastball in, fastball up (strikeout)
- 4/3, Brendan Ryan: Fastball outside corner, fastball up, fastball down the middle, fastball low and in, fastball away (single)
- 4/3, Franklin Gutierrez: Fastball down the middle (up a little), fastball inside corner (pop out)
- 4/3, Kyle Seager: Fastball just low, fastball at the knees, fastball down the middle (fly out)
- 4/4, Michael Saunders: Breaking ball down the middle, breaking ball low, fastball inner half (fly out)
- 4/4, Franklin Gutierrez: Fastball at the top of the zone, fastball down the middle (single)
- 4/4, Raul Ibanez: Fastball just in, fastball down the middle, breaking ball that PITCHf/x lost and I can't remember, breaking ball low and away, fastball down the middle (fly out)
- 4/4, Michael Morse: Fastball low and in, fastball at the knees, fastball at the top of the zone, fastball low and in, fastball down the middle, fastball inner half, fastball up, fastball up and in, fastball way up, fastball at the top of the zone, fastball at the top of the zone, fastball at the top of the zone (strikeout)
That last was was a pretty epic battle, especially given the way that Morse wore out A's pitchers in the series, but it's also an amazing illustration of what Doolittle does. If you foul off his fastballs enough, he'll keep throwing them until you miss one.
Doolittle topped out in the Morse at-bat at just over 94 mph, so he's not Aroldis Chapman. This makes his stats (31.4 percent strikeout rate, again well above the league average) that much more impressive, especially since he had zero trouble with right-handed batters last year. He's not coming at some funky angle from the left side and demolishing lefties at the expense of his ability to retire right-handed hitters. He's just bringing heat and bringing heat and bringing heat and nobody's catching up to it yet.
Doug Thorburn, one of my colleagues at Baseball Prospectus and a fellow A's fan, talks frequently about "effective velocity" being more important than the radar gun measurement. Effective velocity can come from many places: a tricky delivery, a deep release point, and pitch-sequencing all come to mind. Doolittle does not have, to my eyes the first, and he doesn't seem to have the second. (He's not particularly tall, for one thing, at least not for a pitcher.) It'd be awfully funny to say that a pitcher who throws 80 percent fastballs is doing some sort of Greg Maddux advanced moves out there, but of course sequencing isn't only about changes in spin and velocity, but about changed eye levels and in/out pitch-locations as well. Doolittle is a daredevil up in the zone (what lefty with 94-mph heat goes up in the zone six straight times against Michael Morse? I mean ...), so maybe there's something in the way he goes high/low that is causing just a touch of slowness in the bats of his opponents.
Anyway, at this point I tried to make a GIF of Doolittle getting a check-swing strike on a slider to Raul Ibanez, but GIMP and CamStudio aren't getting along (master GIF-makers, any ideas? I didn't give you much to go on, but maybe we can talk this out) so I can't. Suffice it to say that if Doolittle were to have a slider ... hoo boy.