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June 30, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Sean Doolittle Gets Scarier

by Sam Miller

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From Opening Day until May 20, Sean Doolittle struck out 30 batters without walking one. That’s the longest strikeout stretch by any pitcher this year. The crazy thing is that Doolittle, with a still-live stretch of 26 strikeouts without a walk, is on the cusp of topping himself, and having the two longest strikeout stretches without a walk this year.

I’m going to tell you two of the most obvious things you’ll ever read: One thing Doolittle does very well is avoid three-ball counts. Another thing he does very well is throw strikes when he has a three-ball count. It’s true! Look it up. You’ll find that the guy who never walks anybody is very good at avoiding the two things involved in walking somebody (throwing three balls, then throwing one more ball after that).

He does, however, occasionally throw three balls, and I wanted to see what Doolittle has done after that point. These are the last 11 three-ball pitches Doolittle has thrown, and the words they caused me to write underneath them.

1. To Ryan Hanigan, on May 20th.

This is the one walk he issued, which is why we’re starting with it. It’s interesting for a bunch of reasons: It came against Ryan Hanigan, who is patient but non-threatening, like a librarian; it came on four pitches; it’s the only 3-0 count that Doolittle has had all year; and the final pitch, ball four, was, most experts agree, a strike. PITCHf/x thought it was a strike,

and Ryan Hanigan thought it was a strike. Delightfully, Hanigan ducks a little bit to make it look like less of a strike. Ryan Hanigan antiframes pitches when he’s batting!

A couple other reasons. Earlier in the inning, Doolittle struck out Evan Longoria, and threw him practically the same four pitches:

For that matter, Doolittle retired Hanigan the next day on a pitch (and sequence) not all that different from the day before:

2. To Logan Forsythe, on May 21st

That pitch isn’t much different from the one to Hanigan either, for that matter—less than an inch lower,

though Forsythe is also an inch taller than Hanigan. It’s not at all notable that Forsythe swung at this pitch, though. When Doolittle has thrown a fastball in the top third of the strike zone this year, batters have swung 74 percent of the time. (In his rookie season, when he threw a pitch in the middle-top third, they swung at 48 of 49 pitches.) What’s more notable is that Hanigan didn’t swing at his. When Doolittle has thrown a fastball high out of the strike zone this year, batters have swung 70 percent of the time.

Here’s one for you:

  • Doolittle, on pitches out of the strike zone high: 70.3 percent swing rate
  • Tyson Ross, on pitches in the center-cut square of the zone: 69.6 percent swing rate

Forsythe popped this ball straight into the rafters. It landed on the pitcher’s mound, for a hit.

3, 4. To Kole Calhoun, on May 30th.

Last year, when I wrote about Sean Doolittle’s evolution/staying the same, I noted that he still wasn’t much of a command pitcher. His command was getting better, it seemed, but he threw strikes not because he could pinpoint his pitches but because he relied exclusively on a pitch that is pretty easy to control. The two three-ball pitches to Calhoun—the one above, and this one

were pretty well pinpointed, and if we take as a measure of his command the number of pitches he puts in a corner—one of the four corner squares in a nine-square strike zone grid—then we can see further improvement:

  • 2012: 17 percent
  • 2013: 18 percent
  • 2014: 20 percent

If, instead of the four corners, you prefer to focus on how often Doolittle hits a spot up in the zone and over the plate—what you’d call his bread and butter—then we see a greater concentration there, too:

  • 2012: 25 percent
  • 2013: 23 percent
  • 2014: 34 percent

Command is tough to evaluate without looking at every single pitch, and it’s especially tough with fastballs, which pitchers throw to all parts of the zone in a way that they don’t with breaking balls and changeups. But Doolittle’s pitchers are getting more concentrated in certain areas; that fact, plus the knowledge that those are profitable areas for him, means we can probably deduce that he’s more consistently throwing where he wants to.

5, 6. To Colin Cowgill, on June 1.

Neither of these pitches was not what you’d call great command pitches, both of them staying in the middle of the strike zone:

Meanwhile, he has thrown 39 pitches in the middle square of the strike zone this year, like the final pitch to Cowgill. He has allowed one hit on those 39.

7, 8. To Jacoby Ellsbury, on June 4th

You’ll notice that we have shown you a total of 20 pitches so far, either in GIFs or in matchup charts, and every one has been a four-seam fastball. That ends now! Here, in the matchup chart for this Ellsbury at-bat, Doolittle mixes in a slider, taken for a strike:

You’ll remember that this spring Doolittle was working on working his changeup and slider back into his repertoire. Not the typical “he’s been tinkering with it in spring training” stuff that is easily forgotten. There were origin stories for his new pitches, explanations of the new groups, of what he had fixed, and excited quotes from Oakland Athletics about what weapons these pitches would be: “He's taken it to a different level with the slider and the changeup," said Bob Melvin in February. A minor-league catcher who caught him: “Now it's a true slider. And it's really, really good."

He has thrown, according to BrooksBaseball, 86 percent four-seamers this year, down from 88 and 87 the previous two seasons. He has thrown three changeups. His slider has been twice as likely to be called a ball, and half as likely to get a swinging strike, as his fastball has been. Doolittle said in the spring that

I had a lot of innings last year where I had a lot of long battles with hitters fouling balls off. If I can get a guy on three pitches instead of having those kinds of battles…

But just four of his strikeouts this year have ended on a slider or a changeup. Counterpoint: He has ended six other at-bats on sliders, and of the 11 sliders batters have put in play, none has led to a hit. Still, the longer Doolittle is in the league, the less significant a quality secondary pitch seems, and the less likely it is he’ll ever really have one.

9. To Brian McCann, on June 14th.

That wasn’t in the strike zone. Best estimate: Doolittle has thrown 74 percent of his three-ball pitches this year in the strike zone. Last year, we talked about how Koji Uehara, despite his incredible history of not issuing walks, doesn’t pound the zone like some pitchers. He throws strikes, but especially he gets batters to chase. Doolittle does pound the strike zone. Only four pitchers have thrown a higher percentage of pitches in the zone than he has (58 percent); Uehara is way down at no. 58, with 53 percent in the zone.

But Doolittle also gets batters to chase, and this is where he starts to seem unhittable: No pitcher (min. 400 pitches) has induced a higher chase rate than Doolittle this year. He’s not throwing a tricky pitch, but he’s in the zone so much and he’s ahead in the count so often that batters have to be prepared to swing.

10. To Daniel Robertson, on June 17th.

I will say, it's easy to oversell what Doolittle's done. It's a spectacular run, to be sure, but if you wanted to downplay it, you'd note some things. You'd note, for instance, that a half-dozen relievers have had walkless streaks longer than Doolittle's longest, some of those pitchers special (Rivera, Uehara, Smoltz, Romo) and some less so (Dale Thayer, Wilton Lopez). You'd note that Chad Qualls has 27 strikeouts this year and only one unintentional walk, and that Qualls has gone to three-ball counts roughly one-third as often (3.7 percent) as Doolittle has (10.3 percent). You'd note that Edward Mujica walked one batter in a four-month stretch last year and still somehow lost his job by the end of the season. I don't know what sort of strange rush you get from arguing any of this, though. Doolittle's so fun!

11. To Ruben Tejada, on June 25th.

In 2012, when Doolittle arrived, he was a revelation. And 400 miles south, Ernesto Frieri was arriving in Anaheim, and he was a revelation, too. Like Doolittle, he threw one pitch, over and over. He even threw it to the same general location, over and over. It wasn't 105 mph, but it was hard enough, and nobody could touch it. Frieri put together one of the great stretches of dominance in relief history: Thirteen hitless innings, 27 strikeouts; or, if you prefer to go further, 15.3 strikeouts in 26 scoreless innings to begin his Angels career. Frieri hasn't changed much: He throws his fastball just as hard, and he throws it nearly as often as Doolittle (though his effort at incorporating a slider—and, for that matter, a changeup—has taken hold a bit more). But Frieri has been trending down ever since that run. When Frieri throws a pitch just off the plate, batters take. When Frieri misses his target and throws it down the middle, batters homer. This weekend, his employer gave up on him, and now he's a Pirate.

So simple doesn't guarantee anything. Simple works if you start with something special (as Doolittle and Frieri did) and you keep improving it. Doolittle has been, steadily, improving his command. The story with Doolittle is always the same, but the more times he tells it, the scarier it gets.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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