Sean Doolittle recovered from a rough start to the 2020 campaign, which saw him struggle with low velocity and right knee fatigue, and came off the Injured List to put together a solid stretch of appearances in which he gave up just four hits and two walks in six games and 4 2⁄3 innings pitched, with only one unearned run crossing the plate, while he held 18 hitters he faced to a .143/.235/.143 line, before another injury ended his season prematurely.
“I thought I saw glimpses of the old Doo,” Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo told reporters after an oblique injury landed Doolittle back on the IL.
“I think his velocity was still climbing, I think it was going in the right direction. Of course his spin rate is a key for him and his location, so I saw all that improving, I didn’t think he was a finished product yet, it would have been nice to see the last 3-4 weeks of progression. Also, with his struggles and trials and tribulations, he made himself kind of a different pitcher. He kind of rebuilt himself. Mixing in more breaking balls and more changeups and utilizing four quadrants instead of really the upper two quadrants which he’s had so much success with.
“I didn’t see the finished product Doolittle, but I saw Doolittle getting close to the lights out reliever that we’ve had in the past.”
Rizzo was asked at that point if he saw enough to consider bringing the 34-year-old reliever back for a fifth season in D.C.?
“Doo is one of the crucial decisions to make. We’ll wait for all the information and gather all our analytics and medical information and make our decisions based on that,” Rizzo said.
Doolittle, who earned a prorated total of the $6.5M club option that was picked up by the team coming off their World Series win in 2019, is headed for free agency for the first time in his career once the 2020 postseason comes to the end, and coming off an injury-shortened ninth major league campaign, and he said this past weekend that he thinks he’s got something to prove over the winter.
While he’s remained in D.C., working out with one of the Nationals’ physical therapists in their Fairfax, Virginia facility, and watching the last weeks of this 60-game COVID season, he is going to travel to Seattle, WA this winter to work out at Driveline Baseball, which is a performance training facility that focuses on a, “data-driven baseball player development program,” according to their website.
“It’s strange. It really is strange,’’ Doolittle acknowledged of heading into free agency for the first time.
“I’ve never had this feeling really going into an offseason. It’s a little bit exciting. But given the circumstances, the way free agency has played out over the last few years, the way that the pandemic and this weird COVID season that we’ve had, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding how that might impact things as well.
“So, I think that was another reason why I chose to go out and work out at Driveline over the offseason was because I know that I’ll do better, at least mentally through this process if I really feel like I’m doing everything that I possibly can to show teams the best version of myself.”
“It’s really tough,” Doolittle continued.
“I just — I don’t know, really, how to go through this process, so I’m kind of figuring it out as I go along. I don’t want to get my hopes up, or play favorites, you’ve just got to take it as it comes. So I’m going to throw myself into that work this offseason and hopefully everything will work out.”
Looking back on the 2020 season, not just his campaign, but the whole thing MLB has been able to pull off during the coronavirus pandemic, Doolittle, who approached things with not a little bit of skepticism, said in the end it was, “... absolutely a worthy endeavor for us to try to put a season on this year.”
In hindsight, however, he said he wished everyone spent as much time worrying about the players’ health — beyond the COVID protocols — when they were trying to agree to play at all.
“I think too about the impacts that a three-week Spring Training had on a lot of guys around the league,” Doolittle said. “We saw a lot of injuries over the course of this season. There were more guys this year to have Tommy John surgery than there were all of last year in a full 162-game season. But we also saw a lot of those kind of nagging injuries and muscle pulls and stuff like that happen as well that cost guys some significant time this year and may have impacts on the rest of their career. We don’t know yet. I wish we had more time at the beginning of the season to ramp up and that the negotiations weren’t something that took us right up until the eleventh hour, and then we had to — we didn’t have time to really build up like we normally do. I don’t know. So I have a lot of mixed emotions about it.
“I was excited that we were able to play the season, that we were able to try to give something to the fans.”
Those fans, Doolittle said, were also definitely missed in 2020. For the Nationals, he said, it was a tough transition from the 2019 World Series and playing in front of packed stadiums and huge television audiences to empty ballparks under the COVID protocols.
“Things were just so different this year, and I think about for this group when the last time we played — coming into this weird season, the last time we played was the World Series run, when emotions were really, really high, and sold-out stadiums and incredible energy in the stands, and then the the next season you don’t open until July and there’s nobody in the stands and they’re pumping in crowd noise, and I don’t know. I think there’s — I’m one of those guys that really feeds off the crowd when I’m playing in the game, and I think that was an interesting and difficult transition I think. We had some injuries — shoot, every team had some injuries, I guess, and no, I think maybe this was an instance where with a veteran team like we have, maybe we didn’t come out of that summer camp quite in the shape that we wanted to.
“It’s tough to just flip that switch like that in three weeks. That’s less than half of time of a normal Spring Training.
“I think that played an impact in us not getting off to the start that we wanted to, because I think you look at it now, and this team has been playing some of the best baseball they played over the last maybe two weeks.
“And it feels like now everybody is starting to fire on all cylinders and show you what this team is kind of capable of, so I don’t know. I think guys will be looking forward to — I can’t speak for everybody, I know I’m looking forward to going back and having a normal offseason and knowing what to basically prep for here in 2021. Get things back to normal hopefully a little bit.”
The time he’s spent rehabbing has provided an opportunity for plenty of reflection, and as he heads toward free agency, Doolittle said he’s definitely thought about what how special this time in D.C. has been.
“I’ve just been thinking about how incredibly grateful I’ve been to be a part of this group, to win a World Series with this organization and this group of people. Not just my teammates, my teammates are amazing, you guys know I love my teammates, but like the people here in the organization, the medical staff, the trainers, the strength coaches, the whole coaching staff, the support staff that we have back there in the clubhouse, winning a World Series with them and then grinding out a weird 2020 with those people, there’s not another group that I would have wanted to do that with, so it’s been a privilege.”