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August 7, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Sean Doolittle and Doing What Works

by Sam Miller

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This is part three of the Sean Doolittle trilogy. Part 1, in ESPN the Magazine, focused on Sean Doolittle—who, at the time, had thrown about 35 innings as a pro—to consider whether we need to change the way we think about pitching’s complexities. Part 2, here, looked at whether Brand New Pitcher Sean Doolittle had developed any more nuance in his next 50 innings, and concluded that he hadn’t. Other than picking up a little extra fire in his demeanor.

Part 3 might not seem necessary. Here’s Doolittle this year, compared to Doolittle last year:

  • 2012: 130 ERA+, 5.45 Ks/BB, 0.6 HR/9, 2.03 FRA
  • 2013: 130 ERA+, 5.38 Ks/BB, 0.6 HR/9, 2.32 FRA

You’d have a hard time finding a pitcher whose stats are more similar this year than that, so why would we need an update? But Doolittle is actually quite a bit different this year. Last year he struck out 11.4 batters per nine; this year, it’s 8.0 per nine. He is facing fewer batters per inning this year, so the difference is even starker as a percentage:

  • 2012: 31 percent Ks, 19th among pitchers with at least 30 innings
  • 2013: 23 percent Ks, outside the top 100, behind Cliff Lee and Jose Mijares

So three-quarters of the strikeout rate but just as good a pitcher. Indeed, by the measures he prefers, he has been even better. Doolittle was talking about advanced stats on KNBR the other day and, while claiming that FIP and WAR were beyond him,

I think the more telling stat than ERA would be WHIP, how many guys is this guy letting on base. Maybe he has a low ERA but a high WHIP, and maybe it’s like this guy’s playing with fire, it’s only a matter of time before his stats even out. When we’re sitting down there in the bullpen and we’re looking at numbers I think that’s the one that we as players are putting the most stock in.

So if we play by his terms, then 2013 has undoubtedly been better than 2012: he has cut his WHIP from 1.08 to 0.90, with a walk rate cut by a third, and a BABIP that he has cut by 70 points. And I probably just lost you with that last part, because relief pitchers' BABIPs going down generally aren't worth a long post. I like Sean Doolittle a lot, though, so bear with me.

First, to retrace the steps we took in Part 2 of this trilogy, let’s look at his repertoire. Not only has he not started working in his breaking ball more; he’s leaning even more heavily on his fastball, upping usage from 80 percent to lefties and 91 percent to righties last year to 83 and 93 percent this year. Only three pitchers (Kenley Hansen, Ernesto Frieri, and Jake McGee) have thrown fastballs more frequently.

He’s not developing a changeup. He’s thrown 21 this year; he threw 32 last year. Both figures are essentially negligible. But Doolittle basically entered the majors with no experience; he made some faint nods at the idea of “pitching,” with occasional breaking balls and changeups; and, the more experience he gets, the less he bothers at those faint nods. The more experience he gets, the less he pitches like an “experienced” pitcher is expected to. And he arguably gets better.

For one thing, he’s throwing more strikes, which means he’s spending more time ahead in the count, which means he’s getting more outcomes while he’s ahead in the count. Here's the breakdown of when his plate appearances have concluded:

If all you knew about Doolittle was how well hitters have hit against (in his entire career) when he’s ahead in the count, even, or behind in the count, and how often each of those scenarios has occurred this year, you’d do a pretty good job of predicting his opponents’ lines this year and last, and a pretty good job explaining the improvement:

  • 2012: .223/.264/.332 predicted; .227/.270/.341 actual
  • 2013: .217/.250/.324 predicted; .205/.243/.307 actual

You would then wonder why he’s ahead in the count more this year, discover that he’s throwing strikes 73 percent of the time, the most in the AL and a three-point improvement on last year, and you’d then wonder why he’s throwing so many more strikes this year, and the answer seems to be: He’s better now.

It’s always hard to know from a zone chart how much command a pitcher has, given that he might be missing his spot. Doolittle, for his remarkable strike percentage, isn’t much for command. Here he is, for instance, against Colby Rasmus a week ago, where red is the target and green is the location:

Not great! Without knowing where the target is for every pitch, or even many pitches, we can’t say he’s got better command. But we can generally deduce where Doolittle is trying to throw, particularly to lefties, where the target for a fastball is usually low and away, sometimes low and in, and with two strikes often up and away or up and in. He is, in other words, trying to throw to the four corners (out of the nine squares in the strike zone), as you would expect. Last year, 13 percent of his pitches to lefties were in one of the four corners; this year, 21 percent are. Last year, six percent were on a corner away, either at the top or the bottom; this year, 15 percent are. And last year, four percent were in that sweet spot low and away; this year, eight percent are. He’s still not painting reliably, as the at-bat against Rasmus showed. But he’s hitting that spot much more often.

***

One thing about trilogies is that they don't always last forever; they last only until the fourth movie comes out. The other thing about them is that they're easy to do because they just keep repeating the format of the first one. My guess is that this trilogy will, ultimately, have a fourth part. And a fifth, maybe a sixth. The new sequels probably won't break any new ground, because Doolittle doesn't seem to be breaking any new ground. But Doolittle is fascinating. First he pitched like a position player pitching, because that's what he was. Now he's still pitching like a position player pitching, because that seems to be what works best. I kept thinking Doolittle might have room to grow because he'd get more complicated, and have more tools. But that's not what's happened at all. Instead, as he gets more experience, he simply... gets better.

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

Related Content:  Pitching,  Sean Doolittle

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