Last season, Sean Doolittle often watched as his fellow relievers walked off the mound with a dejected look on their faces as the runs piled up for the Washington Nationals’ relief corps.
So far in 2020, it’s Doolittle who has routinely had that same walk of shame off the mound.
Entering Saturday night, Doolittle had made three appearances out of the bullpen, allowing a pair of earned runs in 1.2 innings of work, walking two, and striking out just one batter.
That’s a small sample, but the concern was much deeper than just the face of the results.
It’s not hard to figure out what the major problem has been. Through those three relief appearances, his average velocity sat at just 90.7mph, according to Statcast, with his July 28th outing against the Toronto Blue Jays the worst of all where he averaged just 89.5mph.
The questions continued to mount for the team’s former All-Star closer, but manager Dave Martinez remains emphatic in his support for the reliever.
“I have all the confidence in the world in him,” the skipper said ahead of Saturday’s game. “We just got to keep putting him out there. He threw the ball a little bit better his last outing. His velo was a little better, so we’ve just got to pitch spots to run him out there. We need him.”
True to his word, the Nats’ manager trotted out Doolittle in the eighth inning of Saturday’s game as his ballclub held a 3-0 lead over the Baltimore Orioles.
That lead quickly shrunk to 3-2 as the lefty allowed back-to-back home runs to the first two batters he faced in Pat Valaika and Pedro Severino. He did strike out his required third hitter, Chris Davis, but that was merely the proverbial lipstick on a pig of an outing for Doolittle.
Once again, the fastball velocity just wasn’t there for Doolittle. He was only able to average 89.8mph with the pitch on Saturday, one of which was deposited into the bleachers by Severino while he was only able to generate one swing and a miss.
“I don’t have a ton of answers myself right now,” Doolittle said, solemnly, as he sat down with reporters on Zoom following his rough outing.
“My knee feels strong. My arm feels good. Mechanically I might not be exactly where I want to be, but I feel physically like the ball should be coming out a lot harder than 89-90, it should have some life on it.
“I should be able to get through an inning. And it just hasn’t come together and I’ve been working really, really hard, all through Summer Camp and so far during the season, trying to get things to click.”
“It’s really, really frustrating, and I feel terrible. I’m letting the team down.”
Doolittle had a similar rough patch in 2019 where his velocity was down and opposing hitters lit him up with hard contact around late-August. That time, he ended up having a stint on the Injured List with knee tendinitis before coming back strong in late-September.
However, he says that’s not the case this time and that, comparatively, everything feels fine.
“The difference is that last year around this time when I ended up going on the IL, my — I felt run down,” Doolittle explained. “My arm felt sluggish and my body felt slow. My knee was really bothering me.
“Right now I feel good, and one silver lining of going through that last year, is at least I knew what it was. At least I could point to something and be like alright, ‘Well, as soon as I clear this up, I’ll be good to go.’ Right now I’m just trying to figure it out, trying to get it to click.”
And it’s the fact that feeling fine health-wise makes the rough start to the season even worse for the left-hander.
“Like I said, it doesn’t feel that bad that I shouldn’t be able to get three outs,” Doolittle said. “That’s why it’s so frustrating. It’s that — every reliever, you have periods of a season where you don’t feel 100% locked in, things aren’t maybe as smooth mechanically as you want them, but you’re able to compete and navigate an inning and get the job done more times than not.
“We all have that mode we go into where it’s like, ‘Yeah, this might be a little bit ugly and might not be the most dominant run I’ve had, but I can figure it out, I can go compete.
“And I’m competing as best I can right now, I’m not getting it done. I’m not getting the results that I want and that the team deserves, and it’s really, really frustrating.”
Despite the turbulent start to 2020, the Nationals plan to keep faith with Doolittle, though that faith may be dwindling a little and result in lower-pressure situations for a while.
“I’m not going to give up on him,” Martinez said after the game. “We’re going to figure it out, we’re going to work it out.”
“If I have to pitch him in very low, low-leverage situations, then we’ll do that, but we’ve got to figure something out for him. We need him. He’s a big part of this team. With that being said, I’m going to talk to him later tonight or tomorrow and we’ll figure something out.”
In a shorter season where each game is magnified more than usual, the Nationals can’t afford to put Doolittle into big spots late in games right now. He’s a shadow of the pitcher who was once considered to be among the elite closers in all of baseball.
The best version of the Nats in 2020 needs Doolittle getting big outs, even if he’s not the closer. But until his performance improves, they need to work with him to get him right first.
“I haven’t been able to get the results that I’ve been looking for,” Doolittle said, “but that’s not going to stop me from working, and like I said, trying to bring a good attitude to the field every day.
“It could click tomorrow. Like, I don’t know. That’s the only way for me to look at it, I’m going to just keep my head down and keep working. Cause like I said, I feel good, like physically I feel good. So, you know, it stinks.”