Is the Real Sean Doolittle Back? by Eno Sarris April 8, 2016 Early this March, I talked to Sean Doolittle after a game. He was excited. “I was throwing 93-94 today, and normally it takes me a little to get going,” he told me. “Normally I won’t hit ‘3 until the last week of March.” The excitement was infectious, as it often is with him. He’s an upbeat guy. As I headed back to the press box, I tweeted something about what he said. Another writer pulled me aside and told me their source hadn’t seen anything over 92. That was a bit of cold water. That back and forth? That up and down? That’s probably what it’s like to come back from labrum problems. Hope, false hope maybe, sadness, wash, and do it all again. You just hope that you’re building back to where you were. The good news is that, through two appearances, it looks like the old Sean Doolittle is back. The first step towards his return was to realize that many of his shoulder-strengthening exercises should be done in his actual arm slot rather than at a ninety-degree angle. That helped him also get his oblique muscle — which he hurt in his first attempt to come back — in the right shape for his unique delivery. The other was stepping up some of the strange exercises that pitchers do. He worked with weighted balls once he found that the Driveline Baseball’s program bore some similarities with the one he saw in Oakland. “There’s a surprising amount of overlap between the stuff that they do and the stuff that we do here,” Doolittle said of the two programs. One exercise they do at Driveline has the pitcher go through his throwing motions with a weighted ball in both hands — the idea being that the weighted ball in the glove hand helps the pitcher strengthen the muscles that pull that hand out of the way, which creates separation between the two shoulders — separation that, upon contraction, creates more velocity. Doolittle hadn’t heard of that specific idea, but did have something similar: “One thing I did this offseason was throw with a catcher’s mitt because I’m really conscious of my front side. That glove is twice as heavy as my glove. I get some of that accordion feeling, but I also get that hand up and not have it be weak, while getting my body towards home plate, and that strengthens my front side.” Driveline espouses back strength and mobility as crucial ingredients to a pitcher’s success. One of the foundations of velocity is actually the movement of one’s spine forward to release point. “I did Roman Chair work, backwards crunches, and stuff on the Swiss Ball,” Doolittle said of his offseason back work. All of that is preamble to comparing Doolittle’s current work to his pre-injury work. Back to the discussion about his velocity, Doolittle explained a little more, and it became a little less relevant if he was only sitting 92 that day instead of 93-94 as he self-reported. It came in the context of discussing Driveline Baseball’s infamous “pull downs.” Doolittle, like others in the game, thought they looked a little crazy. Watch Casey Weathers hit 108 mph and you might get the same feeling: “I feel like I would hyperextend my elbow,” said Doolittle of the running javelin-style “pull downs.” But when I explained to him that these were designed to achieve peak game stress, once a week, in order to help the body feel what it’s like to pitch in a game, and then rest and recover, Doolittle immediately understood. “I don’t think I get peak stress in a spring-training game. I do get it in the Bay Series, when we play those games against the Giants. You’re back in those big stadiums, the people are around, the atmosphere is like a regular-season game. When you throw that last pitch in the bullpen, and you step out on the field, you’re like ‘Let’s ***** go. Then today, I was running out there, ‘Hey guys, hey Reddick, what’s going on,’ waving.” So the lefty explained that, while he was sitting 93 (or 92) that day in early March, he should be sitting 94-plus when the regular season came around, once he got a little adrenaline pumping. Was he right? Mostly. He’s not quite all the way back to where he was, but even a healthy Doolittle would have been expected to lose maybe a half tick on the gun. He’s at 93.2 so far this season; he was at 94.0 in 2014. The velocity is there. It’s looking good: His riding fastball has also added more than an inch of rise and, for the first time since 2013, averages three-plus inches more rise than the average four-seamer. Imagine, as a batter, attempting to anticipate where a ball will cross the plate. Now imagine it actually appears three inches higher when it arrives. That’s a recipe for whiffs and pop ups, and so far Doolittle has already gotten five whiffs on 36 four-seamers, a percentage that’s more than two times better than an average four-seamer. In the meantime, Doolittle has had some time to work on his secondary pitches. His split-finger and slider are now legit pitches when it comes to movement and velocity. Look at what how they used to move, how they move now, and how those compare to the league average: Sean Doolittle Movement and Velocity, 2014 & 2016 Pitch Facet 2014 2016 Average Fastball Velocity 95.3 93.5 91.2 Vertical 11.8 12.7 9.4 Horizontal 4.9 4.1 5.5 Change Velocity 85.2 84.5 82.1 Vertical 9.8 6.1 5.1 Horizontal 9.0 8.5 8.9 Slider Velocity 82.5 79.9 82.9 Vertical 1.6 -1.7 1.4 Horizontal -2.7 -2.0 -1.1 SOURCE: Brooks Baseball He’d been working on a split-finger fastball since 2014, but the time rehabbing had given him time to get comfortable with it. Now it drops a whopping six inches more than his fastball — it used to drop two inches more — and it’s the best it’s ever looked. To wit: “I’m feeling pretty good with it,” Doolittle said of the splitter. “Some are pretty good, some are bad, still learning that trust factor with it. In the back of my head, I don’t want to get beat with my second-best trick. You have to trick yourself on the mound, you have to tell yourself that you want them to swing and then you can induce weak contact.” Though Doolittle gave up a homer to Jimmy Rollins to lose the game the other day, it was on a fastball, poorly located. The splitter has gotten three whiffs against a couple hits, and though the slider hasn’t gotten any whiffs, it hasn’t given up any hits either. The arsenal is in decent shape. Between the three pitches, Doolittle now has two more than he had before. That should undo some of the impact of the lost half a mile per hour. Shoulder injuries are a scary thing, but after a few false starts, Doolittle looks like he’s back. And perhaps better than ever.