Sean Doolittle told MLB.com’s Matt Kelly last April that his tendency to throw fastballs up in the zone wasn’t a reaction to the trend towards uppercut swings, but a continuation of the approach he’s had since he entered the big leagues.
“It’s how I’ve always thrown it,” Doolittle explained.
“I came into the league doing that. At the time, I didn’t have a great secondary pitch. So the way I would get hitters to chase out of the zone was by climbing the ladder.”
It used to be effective because hitters were trying to get on top of the ball a few years back, he said, but with the launch angle thing catching on, “you climb the ladder because they’re trying to hit under the ball and hit it up into the air.”
MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac, a veteran of 18 MLB seasons as a reliever, talked about the tendency to work up in the zone in explaining Doolittle’s success, and announcing that the left-hander was ranked second on the MLB Network’s list of the Top 10 Relievers Right Now!
“He’s throwing that fastball up in the zone,” Plesac said, “the guys try to get on top and elevate, and they just can’t seem to get to it. Down in the zone early, getting strike one, strike two and with two strikes … up in the strike zone, riding that four-seam fastball.
“It looks good to hit, but it’s hard to center and hard to put in play. He’s turned himself again, back into a dominant reliever in baseball.”
Doolittle earned 25 saves (in 26 opportunities) in 2018, led all National League relievers in opponents’ on-base percentage (.178), in opponents’ slugging percentage (.213), in WHIP (0.60), and in Save% (96.2%). His .196 BABIP-against was the lowest of his career, and the lowest among NL relievers with at least 40 innings pitched in 2018.
He finished the season with a 1.68 ERA, a 1.90 FIP, six walks (1.20 BB/9), 60 Ks (12.00 K/9), and a .136/.178/.213 line against in 45 innings, over which he held hitters to a .142 AVG on that fastball, which sat around 93.9 mph on the season.
Earlier this winter, Doolittle talked about his 2018 campaign overall, the fact that he missed significant time with a stress reaction in his left foot, and what he had been doing to make sure it wouldn’t be an issue again.
“I’m confident that it’s now behind me,” Doolittle told reporters. “We’ve done some small stuff like some inserts in my shoe like to put my foot in just a better, neutral position, and done some foot exercises and working on ankle mobility and learning a lot about like all of the different bones in your foot and how your arch works, and it probably explains why I’ve had some knee issues in my previous career as a position player, why I had some knee issues dealing with kind of not having great feet.
“So I don’t know, I’ve learned a lot about it, and I have a little bit more maintenance stuff to do, but it’s been feeling really good.”
Washington exercised a $6M option for Doolittle this winter, and the team has a $6.5M club option for the reliever in 2020 as well.