Sean Doolittle has been through it this season, thinking hard about playing before deciding to take part in the 60-game MLB campaign amidst a global pandemic, then struggling early in his ninth big league season before he went on the 10-Day Injured List with a knee issue.
Doolittle, 33, spent time at the Nationals’ Alternate Training Site in Fredericksburg, VA, then returned to the majors, and he said late last month that the support he received from those in Washington’s organization played a big role in him getting right mechanically, and maybe more importantly, mentally.
“There have been several times through this process where I kind of was feeling like I was slamming my head against a wall,” Doolittle explained once he returned to the majors late last month.
Doolittle finally convinced himself that tinkering with his mechanics incessantly led to his knee issue, and it didn’t necessarily help as much as just simplifying, with help of advice from a member of the Nationals’ staff.
“I was trying so hard, I was working really hard, but I wasn’t getting many results, and I talked a lot with our mental skills coach, Mark Campbell, who is somebody I work with regularly and frequently over my career here, pretty much on a daily basis for the last four years,” Doolittle explained.
“And that’s what he kept saying to me, and it took a little bit for me to want to hear that, to want to get that advice, because in your brain when something’s not going right you want to continue to work at it and work hard at it and try new things to make adjustments. He was just like, you’ve got so many different things going on that it’s impossible for your brain to really focus on the thing that you need to do, and so like I said, I had a couple really good, long conversations with him on my drive to and from Fredericksburg, and I think we were really able to identify some things and some mental adjustments that I could make and like I said, going back to those, to 2017, to 2018, watching [that] film, going back with — also with the work that I was doing with him at those times, and remembering what were my keys during those times. What was I focusing on at those times.
“It was all really, really simple stuff, really basic one or two-word phrases that I had and that was all I was thinking about.
“So, I think simplifying things has really helped and has just let a lot of that fluidness and my athleticism kind of take over.”
Doolittle credited the Nationals’ organization as a whole, and Campbell and manager Davey Martinez in particular, with helping him start to turn things around.
“The Nats’ organization top-to-bottom has been incredibly supportive of me throughout this process,” Doolittle said.
“I’ve had several conversations with Davey, really emotional conversations that meant everything to me.
“It’s a privilege to play for a manager that cares about his guys like that, not just how they are performing on the field, but who they are as people.
“That kind of support really means a lot to me. I know it means a lot to other guys as well. But, you know, [GM Mike] Rizzo, I’ve had conversations with him and [Pitching Coach] Paul Menhart, obviously, but I’m really really lucky to be a part of this organization and they helped me through this process and I want to do anything I can to reward that trust and that support.”
“What I really focus on is not necessarily the player, but the person. I try to involve myself in their personal life, really,” Martinez said when asked about the conversations with Doolittle.
“You want these guys to come out and perform well and sometimes you got to figure out what makes them tick.
“I definitely have a lot of conversations with all the players. Sean is special. He means a lot to me. He’s an unbelievable person, so we have different conversations about all kinds of different things and I’m just here to help.
“I tell them all the time, just because we have to do a job, or things might not go well, I’m here for you always, 24/7, so don’t be afraid if you need to talk about anything at all. I’m here.
“If I can help, great, if I can’t help I’ll find somebody that can help them, so I think they all understand that.”
The third-year manager was asked before Tuesday night’s matchup with the Tampa Bay Rays, how much time he’s spent focusing on his players’ mental health this season, in a weird campaign for everyone involved as the coronavirus pandemic remains an issue.
“It’s a great question,” Martinez said. “I spent a lot of time individually with players. This year has been difficult for a lot of players, mentally, getting prepared. Their routine has somewhat had a change. For our club, we’re very close. We build on chemistry as you guys all know that.
“It’s been different. Social distancing. Not being able to hang out in the clubhouse.
“Taking quick showers, and leaving. It’s been hard for all of us. So I spent a lot of time just going around and individually talking to guys and just seeing how they’re doing, how their family is doing, how they’re holding up.
“A lot of these guys — nobody’s family is here. Everybody is pretty much gone. We have some guys that have never been away from their wives since they’ve been married. It’s tough. Their kids. Young kids. Everything is tough, but the good part is once the game starts, they go out there and perform and try to do the best they can for three hours, they get to take their mind off of everything that’s happening around them and just go play the game.
“These guys — as much as they struggle with all this, when they go on the field, I can’t say enough about their effort. They’re playing hard every day, so that’s all I can ask.
“I often joke about — but I think I’m serious about taking some psychology classes over the winter, because it’s been that tough.”
While he’s there for all his players, coaches, and staff, who does Martinez talk to, since he’s going through this all too, separated from his family, with health concerns after he had a health scare late in the 2019 regular season?
“I talk a lot to the coaching staff. Mike [Rizzo] and I are really close. I talk a lot to Mike. I kind of go home after watching the replay of some of the games, and I go into meltdown mode.
“Basically just sit there and just vegetate on my couch, and I just kind of try to process everything and know what I want to do for the next day and who I need to talk to and get ready to go again.
“My whole deal as these guys know. I tell them all the time, I say honestly. I never have any bad days. Some days are better than others, and you’ve just got to live with that, so just make today your best day ever and go out there and have fun.”