Oakland Athletics 2016 Preview: LHP Sean Doolittle

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A’s 2016 Preview: Closer Sean Doolittle – He’s Back

The Oakland Athletics addressed their most glaring need this offseason, having improved their bullpen through free agency and trade. But one constant remains from the old guard: Sean Doolittle.

Doolittle remains in the closer role for the 2016 season. He is one of the most beloved A’s on the field and off. His health, however, is the biggest question moving forward. Can he put his dreadful 2015 shoulder injury behind him? Many signs point to yes.

His 2014 campaign was one A’s fans remember well.

In a season of unprecedented precision, Doolittle gave up his first walk on May 20 of that year, his second walk on June 30 – and merely six more free passes for the remainder of the year. This was good for a 11.13 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He put up 22 saves that year, usurping the closer’s role from a deposed Jim Johnson in mid-May, and finished with a 2.73 ERA with 89 strikeouts.

Doolittle doesn’t have very many weapons. He possesses a changeup and slider that he will sometimes use, but he has relied on his fastball 87.7 percent of the time throughout his career. His pitches usually come in at 93-94 MPH. In an interview for Fox Sports, Doolittle said in 2014:

"“We looked at a chart of balls that were put in play and almost every single hard contact was mid-thigh and down. I’d be coming back in and I’d be like, that was a good pitch, that was a fastball at the knees. I had to get it in my head that I was a guy that had to keep the ball up in the zone.”"

Part of why he gave up so few walks in 2014 was his reliance on a high, hard fastball, which hitters loved to try to eat up for a home run and failed. So like Jake McGee, Doolittle relies on one pitch to get outs.

On the other hand, Doolittle did have a painful 2015 season.

In general, shoulder injuries will give pitchers a “terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day”. Google the words “torn rotator cuff pitcher” and the first result is a 2007 article from MLB.com, ominously titled “A torn rotator cuff: You don’t want this.”

In that article, Kansas City GM Dayton Moore talks about players’ ability to rebound from a rotator cuff tear: “The statistics show pitchers often don’t return to their customary level. The success ratio of Tommy John is certainly much better.”

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But in the same article, there are examples of pitchers who have recovered from a torn rotator cuff. This includes Pedro Martinez, Tom Gordon, Jesse Crain, and Freddy Garcia, among others.

Count Doolittle on that list.

Doolittle already came back last year, following extended rehab. He rushed himself back onto the field in May, making just one scoreless appearance before returning to the disabled list. He had a fastball that topped out at 89 MPH that day, and he was then shut down until August. Extended rest seemed to do him well, as his fastball velocity returned to normal when he finally returned. To close out the season, he scored four saves, striking out 11 batters in 13 2/3 innings.

Doolittle is back. He will return as the indisputable closer, as the A’s have full faith in him to repeat his 2014 campaign. Barring injury, Doolittle will be pitching in the ninth inning all season long.

Bold Prediction: A’s fans will be headbanging to Metallica this season with regularity as Doolittle puts up 35-40 saves.

Next: A's 2016 Preview: LHP Felix Doubront

Will Doolittle be the closer for the entire season? Do you have the same amount of faith in him as the Athletics’ do? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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