Sean Doolittle missed time down the stretch, with a knee issue and general fatigue landing the Washington Nationals’ 33-year-old closer on the Injured List in mid-to-late August, then he returned to the bullpen, built his strength back up, and finished the season with a strong run of nine appearances in September in which he put up a 2.25 ERA and .111/.172/.222 line against over eight innings of work.
That solid stretch followed a brutal one before the IL stint which saw Doolittle give up a total of 13 hits (5 HRs) and 10 earned runs in five appearances and four innings pitched (in which opposing hitters had a .520/.556/1.240 line against the reliever).
The southpaw was available in the postseason, however, at least in part thanks to the time off, and he ended up making nine appearances in October, giving up six hits, (one a home run), and two earned runs (1.74 ERA), with a .167/.189/.306 line against in 10 1⁄3 IP.
“I think that time off that I had when I was on the IL, even though it was two weeks, it was a really good reset for my body,” Doolittle said during the NLCS.
“It allowed me to -- like we had talked about back then, the strengthening work that we did for my right leg -- I was dealing with that tendinitis in my knee -- and it’s allowed me to get into such a better position mechanically on the mound, and I think over the last few weeks, my stuff has really started to come back and I’ve been able to throw the ball with a lot more confidence here.”
“So fortunately,” Doolittle explained, “... the timing worked out right, and there’s a whole kind of litany of maintenance exercises that I have to do to keep my knee in a good spot, but fortunately, I’ve been feeling pretty good.”
Daniel Hudson helped hold the late innings down when Doolittle was recovering in August, and the relievers ended up sharing the closing duties in the postseason, with Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez picking the best spots and matchups for the skeleton relief crew he used during the run to the World Series win.
“After [Doolittle] came off the IL we were building him up to get to this point,” Martinez said in October.
“I said this all year that in a perfect world he’s our closer, he’s done it, he understands it, he knows the role, he’s good at it. But we wanted to build him up. And now he’s throwing the ball about as [good] as I’ve seen him throw the ball pretty much all year. His fastball is good, spin rate’s good, he’s a huge spin rate guy, and he’s using other pitches very well. So with him and Huddie in the 8th and 9th and maybe in the 7th, I feel like we got a nice stopgap there.”
Doolittle told reporters he hadn’t realized just how good Hudson (who put up a 1.44 ERA, a 3.53 FIP, four walks, and 23 Ks in 24 games and 25 IP during the regular season after he was acquired by the Nationals in late July and put up a 3.72 ERA, four walks, and 10 Ks over 9 2⁄3 IP in the postseason) was until he got to see the veteran work up close on a regular basis.
“I did not know he was this good,” Doolittle acknowledged. “I didn’t really know that much about him, to be honest. We never really saw much of each other because I was in the American League and he spent so much time in the National League between the Diamondbacks and the Pirates and Dodgers. I knew he threw really, really hard, and I know that we had overlapped — we played against each other when we were in the college, when he was at ODU [Old Dominion University] and I was at UVA [University of Virginia].”
“I knew a little bit about his story,” the lefty added, “... that he had pretty much back-to-back Tommy John surgeries, and as a guy that spent a lot of time on the IL throughout the course of his career, I have a ton of respect for guys that have to battle back from stuff like that. I don’t know, I think this year he’s taken his game to a whole new level. I think he’s made some adjustments with his sequences. He’s mentioned that he’s thrown his four-seam fastball more across the top of the zone. I think in past years, he’d been more of a sinker guy.
“I can’t say enough about what an awesome addition he’s been to our bullpen and to our clubhouse, obviously, stabilizing the bullpen and picking us up down there more times than we can count. But he’s an awesome teammate, and we’re really lucky to have him.”
Will the Nationals have Hudson and Doolittle back together at the back end of the bullpen in 2020?
Doolittle’s $6.5M club option for 2020 was exercised by the Nationals in early November, so the left-hander will be in D.C. for at least one more season, and GM Mike Rizzo told reporters at the Winter Meetings earlier this month that the team had reached out to Hudson, who is now on the free agent market.
“We’ve been in touch with his representatives,” Rizzo said, noting that the due diligence the team did before acquiring Hudson at the trade deadline gave them a good idea of what the reliever is capable of doing at this point in his career.
“We look at the way we scouted him prior to the trade deadline, and what we saw once he was with us I think gives us more than a snapshot,” he explained.
“I think it gives us a longer view with a wider lens of what he will project out to be in the future.”
Will what they know about Hudson make them comfortable offering the sort of multi-year deal that the reliever and his representatives are reportedly after this winter?
Did the adjustments Doolittle made late last season straighten him out going forward?
Martinez said earlier this month he thought the Nationals could use, “a few ‘back end of the bullpen’ guys to complement Doolittle,” when he spoke about the club’s roster needs at the Winter Meetings.
If the Nationals and Hudson can’t work something out, where else do you see the Rizzo and Co. in the front office turning for a bullpen arm who could fill the role Hudson did with their team in 2019?