After making a career-high 70 regular season appearances and four more appearances during the post-season, Oakland A's set-up man Sean Doolittle took some time after the 2013 season to decompress.
"I crashed pretty hard after the season ended," Doolittle said during a media session before the Oakland A's FanFest in February. "I was glued to the couch for a couple of weeks. I didn't realize how tired I probably was. It was good to have a low-key off-season."
While Doolittle's off-season may have been "low-key," it was productive. The left-hander spent the months in-between the 2013 and 2014 seasons in Scottsdale, Arizona, just a short drive from the A's minor league complex in Phoenix. He worked out regularly with the A's coaching staff, as well as several A's players who also make their off-season home in the Phoenix area.
The player Doolittle spent the most time with was his brother, Ryan, who is also a pitcher in the A's system. Ryan lived with his older brother this off-season and served as Sean's throwing and workout partner.
Sean's journey through the A's minor league system is well-documented and is littered with several health set-backs including a serious knee injury that cost him more than two seasons and a wrist injury that ended his time as a position player. Ryan has had a similarly bumpy road. He has never made more than 24 appearances in a season because of various arm injuries. Ryan had Tommy John surgery during the 2012 season. He returned to regular season action towards the end of the 2013 season, pitching six games for the A's Rookie League team and the High-A Stockton Ports.
Sean sees big things ahead for his younger brother, who will be eligible for minor league free agency at the end of this season if he isn't on the A's 40-man roster. Ryan is currently participating in the A's minor league spring mini-camp.
"He looks good," Sean said. "His ball has some life on it. He's the athlete of the family, so he bounced back and he doesn't look like he's missed any time."
The early reports on Ryan's progress during mini-camp have been positive. A's minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson told OaklandClubhouse correspondent Kimberly Contreras that all of the younger Doolittle's pitches have looked great and that Ryan has had his trademark excellent command (in 163 career minor league innings, Ryan has struck-out 157 and has walked just 20 while posting a 1.07 WHIP). Ryan is part of a group of pitchers participating in the mini-camp that will be available to the big league team during spring training games, according to Emerson.
The elder Doolittle's major focus this off-season, in addition to normal conditioning, was continuing to develop his secondary pitches. Although drafted as a position player, Doolittle starred on the mound and in the batter's box at Virginia. Despite more than four years away from pitching, Doolittle was able to regain the feel for his fastball quickly when he made the switch with the A's from first baseman/outfielder to pitcher in late 2011. In fact, his fastball had even more zip than it did in college, likely because Doolittle's strength training had improved as a pro. The feel for his slider and change-up has been longer in coming.
Doolittle admitted that his confidence in those two pitches went up and down in 2013. Although Doolittle posted excellent numbers (3.13 ERA, a 60:13 K:BB in 69 IP, 0.957 WHIP), he knows that being more than a one-pitch pitcher will make him even more effective.
"I felt like there were times last year when I had a second and a third pitch, but I felt like I would have them for a couple of weeks and then I'd lose the feel and it would take a two or three weeks to get them back," Doolittle said. "It was a real ebb-and-flow of comfortability with it. We have been doing a lot of work just to repeat the hand motion for turning the change-up over so I feel more comfortable with it.
"I think on some level, it's a feel thing and I'm going to have to trust that when [Stephen] Vogt or [Derek] Norris or [John] Jaso puts those fingers down that it is the best pitch and I'm going to have to execute it. I know what a nasty slider looks like or a nasty change-up looks like as a hitter, so sometimes I try to do a little bit too much and make it something that it isn't or that it doesn't need to be and I get myself in trouble.
And then there was one.
When the A's designated OF Corey Brown for assignment earlier this off-season, it left Sean Doolittle as the last member of the A's 2007 draft class still with the organization. First-round pick James Simmons and fifth-round pick Andrew Carignan left the organization this off-season as minor league free agents, while other top picks from that draft have long been traded away or have retired.
Doolittle still keeps in touch with members of his draft class, particularly Carignan and infielder Josh Horton, both of whom played against Doolittle frequently in college. Doolittle says it is definitely strange to be the last of his class still in the green-and-gold.
"It's very weird that I am the last one," Doolittle said. "To know that for awhile it almost didn't work out, it's weird. It's very weird."
"That's what we have been working on is just trying to get those reps in. It's tough as a pitcher. It's not like you can go into the cage as a hitter and take a thousand swings. You only have so many bullets in your arm and you need to conserve it. We have been trying to make those reps count. I am feeling good about it, especially the slider, going into spring training."
Over the past two seasons, Doolittle has become one of the best relievers in the American League, but he isn't far removed from his time as one of the top position prospects in the A's system. In 250 minor league games, Doolittle hit .272/.354/.449 with 30 homers. He reached Triple-A at the start of his second full professional season and looked just months from a big league chance when he injured his patella tendon playing right field for the Sacramento River Cats. Several surgeries and set-backs later, Doolittle made the transition back to the mound.
Now two-plus years into his pitching career, Doolittle has put his knee problems behind him.
"We have all kinds of corrective exercises that I have built into my routine that I do before I go on the field for batting practice," Doolittle said. "It corrects the alignment and keeps the muscles in place so that everything stays where it is supposed to. That takes the stress off of it as much as we can. The last couple of years – this last off-season and the off-season before – we have been able to lift lower body a lot heavier while doing those corrective exercises and the maintenance work. I think that has really helped it."
With his knee now healthy, does Doolittle ever think about getting back into the batter's box? The A's played a couple of long extra-inning games last season, but Doolittle wasn't available as the game stretched past the 13th inning, having pitched earlier in those games. Had he been available, he doesn't think he would have been much of a weapon with the bat, despite his minor league hitting pedigree.
"I wouldn't mind taking some swings off of a tee, but when that ball starts moving, it's a whole different ballgame," Doolittle said with a laugh. "I remember last year, we were filming commercials and [Ryan] Cook was pitching and I was a stand-in as a hitter. He was just kind of laying it in there, and I didn't really want any part of that.
"It's one of those things where if you don't use it, you lose it. I have taken some swings off of a tee in the cage and that is still there, but I'd much rather know what pitch is going to be thrown than have to react to it. I have come to learn that sometimes it looks really easy [to hit] when you are sitting in the bullpen or in the dugout off to the side. You have to remind yourself how complicated it can be."