And make it to the big leagues he did. But instead of being a power bat in the middle of the lineup as originally expected, he’s a left-handed reliever with a 96 mph fastball. Sean Doolittle made his major league debut with the A’s on Tuesday against the defending two-time American League Champion Texas Rangers by retiring all four hitters he faced, while striking out the first three.
“I was a little bit shocked,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “First, the demeanor. It looked like he’d been here for a little while. And two, he challenged right-handed hitters and really good right-handed hitters with his fastball.”
Doolittle was both a pitcher and a first baseman in college at the University of Virginia. He hit .300 and had an ERA less than three in all three seasons there. After a strong 2008 minor league season with High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland put him on the doorstep of the major leagues, Doolittle suffered two knee injuries that limited him to just 28 games with Triple-A Sacramento in 2009 and forced him to miss all of 2010. Last year, he hurt his wrist during extended spring training and he began pitching again to clear his mind.
“It started as a way for me to stay sane throughout yet another rehab,” Doolittle said.
It’s not unheard of for position players to make the switch to pitching, or vice versa. Washington Nationals’ center fielder Rick Ankiel pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals for four seasons before injuries and control problems moved him to the outfield three seasons later. Rockies’ reliever Rafael Betancourt spent time as a shortstop in the Indians system before converting to pitching.
Closer to home for A's fans, Rangers’ reliever Alexi Ogando spent time in Oakland’s system as a weak-hitting, strong-armed outfielder before Texas took him in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft.
In those players’ cases, it took years for them to get accustomed to their new positions. Doolittle officially made the switch to pitching last summer. Now he’s in the major leagues.
“No,” Melvin answered when asked if he’s ever heard of a story like Doolittle’s.
“We had Justin Upton in Arizona come up when he was 19. He went from Double-A to the big leagues. But boy, for a guy that’s made a positional change, you would think that would take at least a couple years. So no, I have not seen something like that.”
The more time Doolittle spent throwing off a mound, the more he resembled the pitcher that struck out 108 in 90.2 innings his sophomore season as a Cavalier. Once he got some arm strength back, he noticed some serious zip on his fastball.
“The pitching progressed as the wrist didn’t," Doolittle said.
"The more that happened after a couple months, when [A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman] and I talked, I said, 'Hey, I really think I can do this. I really think there’s something here and I can make it happen.'"
The left-hander didn’t play in any winter leagues during the offseason, but he said he spent time at the A's fall instructional league working on his new craft. Luckily for Sean, he had his younger brother Ryan -- also a pitcher in the A's chain -- in his corner while making the transition.
"To have him there helping me make the transition was huge,” Sean said.
Ryan Doolittle is currently pitching with High-A Stockton after Oakland drafted the right-hander in 2008. In 11 games with the Ports, Ryan has struck out 23 hitters and has only walked three in 17.2 innings. As good as those numbers are, they pale in comparison with the ones Sean put up at three minor league levels before his promotion to Oakland.
Sean pitched a combined 25 innings between High-A Stockton, Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento this year before getting called up to Oakland on Tuesday. He yielded just eight hits, seven walks and had a 0.72 ERA in his 16 games. But the strikeout numbers are what really stand out. He struck out 48, giving him a K-rate of 17.3 per nine innings.
Sean Doolittle says he throws a slider and a “four-seem changeup.” But he didn’t show them off in his debut Tuesday. He threw 21 pitches -– all fastballs -– en route to striking out Nelson Cruz (96 mph) and Mike Napoli (95 mph) swinging and Yorvit Torrealba (94 mph) looking before inducing Craig Gentry to line out softly to first.
When asked what makes his fastball so difficult on hitters, Doolittle smirked and said he wasn’t completely sure.
“I think there’s a little deception there,” he said. “I’ve been told I hide the ball pretty well. I think part of it is, I’ve thrown so many fastballs that I’ve got to throw an off-speed pitch at some point.”
Melvin heard Doolittle throws off-speed pitches, but will have to see it to believe it.
“It’s a slider I hear. I guess if it ain’t broke, right?” Melvin joked before Wednesday’s game.
Paired with right-hander Ryan Cook, Doolittle could give the A’s a formidable, young righty-lefty duo coming out of the bullpen going forward. Cook ranked second in the AL with a 0.72 ERA before Wednesday’s game.
Melvin said he will initially use Doolittle sparingly, indicating that he doesn’t plan on using the hard-throwing left-hander in too many high-leverage situations right away. If all goes well, however, Melvin hopes Doolittle will pitch himself into more of a setup role down the road.
“We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves and expect too much out of him," Melvin said.
"You always want these guys to kind of pitch their way into it without overdoing the expectations. But he kind of made his bed last night."
With the addition of Doolittle, Oakland has three lefties in its bullpen. Brian Fuentes has served as the closer of late while Jerry Blevins has been used more in long relief. Jordan Norberto had a very good May, allowing opponents a .140 batting average, but he landed on the 15-day DL and won’t be eligible to come back until June 15.
As long as Fuentes is closing games, Doolittle could become the late-inning option from the left side of the rubber. But Doolittle has ascended the ranks of the A's system so quickly, he hasn’t gone through a rough patch as a professional pitcher. The jury is still out on how he will handle adversity.
"I’m sure I’m going to hit a rough spot at some point, just by the nature of the game and the law of large numbers that at some point I’ll get hit around a little bit," Doolittle said.
"That’s part of pitching and that’s part of baseball. I understand that, but I think coming from where I’ve come from with the injuries I’ve had, I have the mental toughness to overcome a bad outing or bad week."