Probably the most surprising addition to the A’s roster this season has been left-handed reliever Sean Doolittle. Why? Well, because last year at this time, he wasn’t even a pitcher! Doolittle was a 1st-round draft pick for the A’s back in 2007 out of the University of Virginia. Though he competed as both a first baseman and a pitcher in college, he was projected to be a power-hitting first baseman for the A’s. But after less than 1,000 at-bats in the A’s minor league system, a string of serious injuries ended up keeping him off the field for most of 2009, all of 2010, and the vast majority of 2011.
When it looked like Doolittle’s injuries would keep him from ever having the chance to be a productive hitter again, the decision was made to try his hand at pitching late last year. After getting his feet wet at Stockton, Midland and Sacramento earlier this year – and meeting with impressive results every step of the way – the 25-year-old was called up by the A’s in early-June. And he’s quickly proven himself to be a reliable lefty in the A’s bullpen, posting a 2.08 ERA and striking out 26 batters in his first 13 games with the A’s. When we visited Oakland shortly before the All-Star break, we had the chance to talk with Doolittle about his amazing success on the mound, and what’s behind it all…
AF: A year ago, you probably would have had a hard time imagining that you’d be standing on the pitcher’s mound here at the Oakland Coliseum a year later. Where was your head at this time last year?
SD: It was pretty immensely out of it to be honest with you. I was wondering if I was ever going to play again period. I was in the middle of missing my third season. I really had no idea what direction my career was headed. I was just trying to stay busy and kind of throwing myself into rehab trying to get healthy. But it was pretty much one of the last things I was thinking of to be honest.
AF: When was the decision finally made for you to start pitching?
SD: It was like the last week of August. I think I threw the last game of the rookie ball season down there (in Arizona). I’d just had some bad news from the doctor, and it looked like I was going to need extensive time off or another surgery on my wrist. So I kind of asked, and it took a week for them to bounce it off the powers that be and have them go through the chain of command. And they had a scout come in and watch me throw and, by the last week of August, I was a pitcher.
AF: So you were the first one to bring up the idea then.
AF: Well, that was a good idea! Having pitched in college, I guess it wasn’t something that was completely new to you anyway.
AF: Well, you started out in A-ball at Stockton this year. When did you think – hey I think this thing might work out?
SD: It was probably last year in the Instructional League. The first time out, I hit 97 mph several times and the location was there. I was commanding the fastball. I was throwing strikes with that kind of velocity. And in the Instructional League very early on, I was like – I really think there’s something here. I could maybe do something with this. But I never thought it would happen this fast.
AF: So what has the key been to your quick success pitching?
SD: I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out to be totally honest with you.
AF: So if we figure it out, we should let you know.
SD: Yeah, absolutely. You might have to ask somebody else. I’m still not sure what I’m doing.
AF: Well, what are you mainly throwing now?
SD: Fastball, slider, changeup – a lot of fastball/slider combos to lefties. But the fastball’s been the key for me – the velocity and the way that I’ve been able to command it has really helped me have success. It’s kind of been my go-to pitch.
AF: So is there anything in particular you’re working on right now?
SD: Just trying to develop my off-speed stuff as much as we can. It’s still a work in progress. It’s to the point that I feel like I can compete with it for sure, but it’s not to where I want it to be and where I think it could be. But pitchers talk about how it takes them years to refine their breaking stuff and get the feel for their changeup. So we’re working on it everyday as much as we can, without throwing too much – there’s a fine line there.
AF: Coming up here to Oakland, is there anything that’s been particularly different with the big league game for you?
SD: There’s just less room for error. The strike zone is smaller, and the hitters battle a lot more. And if you catch the outer third of the plate, you’re going to be in trouble. In the lower levels, maybe they foul it off. If you make a mistake, more times than not, you’re going to pay for it. So that’s what I’m finding out.
AF: So basically, just don’t make mistakes!