“It’s strange. It really is strange,” Sean Doolittle said back in late September 2020 of heading into the offseason unsure of where he would pitch next.
Doolittle, 34, was limited by injuries in his fourth season in the nation’s capital, and he made just eleven appearances in MLB’s 60-game COVID campaign last summer in which he had a 5.87 ERA, an 8.28 FIP, and a .300/.371/.633 line against in 7 2⁄3 innings pitched.
It was an unfortunate end to his time in the nation’s capital, which saw the southpaw post a 3.03 ERA, 3.41 FIP, 33 walks (2.08 BB/9), and 163 Ks (10.28 K/9) in 142 2⁄3 IP, saving 75 games with the Nationals.
Doolittle struggled with a knee injury (which led to a stint on the injured list), inconsistency, and decreased velocity in 2020, but it was an oblique injury late in the abbreviated season that ended his ninth major league campaign, after he’d returned with a strong stretch that showed him and the club that he could still compete at the big league level.
“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.”
Was he close enough to the Doolittle of old for the Nationals to consider bringing him back for a fifth season?
“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.
There were some early talks with the Nationals, according to a person with knowledge of Sean Doolittle's free agency, but CIN was on him from the beginning and talks obviously heated up recently. Doolittle's oblique healed by late October and he started offseason workouts then.— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) February 3, 2021
“I’ve never had this feeling really going into an offseason,” Doolittle said in September of heading into free agency for the first time in his career.
“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.”
On Tuesday, Doolittle, who earned (a prorated amount of) $6.5M in 2020, reportedly signed a 1-year/$1.5M deal with the Cincinnati Reds.
Back at the end of the 2020 season, before he knew for sure he would be leaving Washington, D.C., the reliever said he would always look back on time with the Nationals fondly, especially the ‘19 Fall Classic, which was the first World Series championship of his career, and the first for a D.C.-based team since 1924.
“Since my injury, I found myself focusing on — rather than the uncertainty of free agency and what’s going to happen next, just like how lucky I was to be here for the last four years, and really how cool winning the World Series really was, and how special it was that we were able to accomplish that in what might be like the last version of the playoffs as we know them. Like they’re trying to change all these rules now and I think it’s really cool that we did it that way, at that time, with that group, beating the Astros, who were such heavy favorites, but I think about like — when I think about the World Series, like just what made the whole experience so special was the way the fans really impacted that run that we went on.
“Whether playing at a home Nats Park sold out with our fans going crazy, unfortunately we didn’t get them a win, but that was so special, and it was incredible to see the response from the city and all the Nats fans, and then going down there to Houston and playing in front of a sold-out crowd of their fans, and being on the other side of it, but when you look back on that experience now, after going through this weird 2020 season, you’re reminded of how important fans are to this game. The impact that they play on every game, and the way that they’re able to help you rise to the occasion, and elevate your game, and we’ve absolutely missed that aspect of the game this year not having fans in the stands. So when I think back on 2020 and 2019, that’s definitely one of the biggest differences, and one of the things I miss the most. So yeah, 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.”