The first time Sean Doolittle’s career almost ended, he still owned a first baseman’s glove. The second time his career almost ended, he was clutching his throwing shoulder and wondering why he couldn’t crack 90 mph on the radar gun. During his second comeback, often he wondered why he was “pitching with the brake on” as he put it last week.
A tweak to his repertoire and a tweak to his rehab, and things are starting to look up for the Oakland left-hander. He’s now hit 95 mph six times in his last three outings, including Monday in the second half of a back-to-back appearance.
Coming back from a small tear in his rotator cuff, Doolittle hit rehab as a pitcher for the first time in his career. Though he hit the exercises with gusto, he wasn’t quite right when he stepped to the mound again competitively this year. On May 27th, he maxed out at 91 and sat 89 mph, and this was the guy that was top 30 in fastball velocity among relievers last year, sitting 94 for the full season.
When Doolittle talks of pitching with the brake on, he meant that he was “decelerating and guarding against the pain,” even as he insisted he didn’t actually feel that pain. When pitchers say that “the last hurdle is the mental one,” as Doolittle paraphrased, this pitcher had to admit that he “didn’t get all the way there.”
But this isn’t just a mental thing. After Doolittle pitched one appearance in May, he was sent right back to the disabled list, this time with a subscap strain. The subscapularis is the muscle between the shoulder blade and the ribs. At first glance, that’s a little low for a guy that was having shoulder issues, but it turns out that one particular aspect of Doolittle’s rehab was maybe at fault.
Before a game, you might see the pitchers warming up by flapping their arms up and down like little drummer boys. That exercise is in a general class of arm work that pitchers call “90/90s” because of the angles that you create while wagging your arms. It’s an industry standard, but for Doolittle, he had to add to that work to finally get rid of the parking break on his arm.
Watch Doolittle in his first start back. He watched this video, and couldn’t believe where his release point was, and how he wasn’t getting the natural extension with his arm, and wasn’t following through like he used to.
The problem with sticking with 90/90 work was that it strengthened the muscles that he used when he was making a 90 degree angle with his elbow. When he releases the ball comfortably, it looks more like this. His arm follows through further, he’s whipping through stronger, and it looks like he’s more fully extending with strength in these two GIFs compared with the one above. That’s from early last year on the left, and from Monday on the right.
Not super easy to see. But you can see the change in his release point data. He’s almost back to normal:
Since Doolittle’s elbow is at more like a 140 degree angle when he releases the ball, he’s activating different muscles than if he was releasing the ball with his elbow at a 90 degree angle. Guess which muscles. Yup, the subscap, the oblique, all those muscles in the ribs.
So Doolittle started doing many of the 90/90 exercises with his elbow in his natural release position on his second rehab. Now his obliques are stronger and he’s ready to let loose. “It’s still the third week of March” he laughed, “so I’m not sneaking up on anyone.” But at least he’s letting it fly and “throwing through the ball now.”
And while he was out, he decided to start throwing a split-finger to give himself a legitimate change for the first time. When you total up the ten splitters he’s thrown this year, the pitch drops two inches more than any changeup he’s thrown so far.
That doesn’t quite tell the whole story, since he’s still mid-Spring-Training with the pitch that he just grips and “throws the piss out of.” Against Detroit, he threw the one you see GIF’d below. If more consistent execution of the pitch gives us this pitch on the regular, Doolittle part three could be even better than the first two versions.
We’ve seen this with changeups from Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi before, so even the pitcher himself is only cautiously optimistic. He knows that he needs to keep working on it, just like he needs to make sure that all the muscles around his shoulder are in good shape.
At least now he’s more upbeat about this work. “I’m excited to keep working and know more about my body,” he said as he shoved his civilian clothes into his locker and jogged out to the field, ready for the third chapter in his career.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.