The Cincinnati Reds have signed left-handed reliever Sean Doolittle to a 1-year contract for $1,500,000. C. Trent Rosecrans of The Athletic was the first to report that the deal was close to happening. Jon Morosi of MLB Network was the first to report that the deal was completed as well as the amount.
The 2020 season was not a good one for Sean Doolittle. The lefty missed most of the season and threw just 7.2 innings, allowing five earned runs (5.87 ERA). In 2019, though, he was an above-average reliever. It was still the worst season of his career as he posted a 4.05 ERA (111 ERA+) in 60.0 innings with 29 saves, 15 walks, and 66 strikeouts. In the previous seven seasons between his time with the Oakland Athletics and Washington Nationals he posted a 2.83 ERA (143 ERA+) in 328.0 innings, allowed just 231 hits, 61 walks, and he had 391 strikeouts.
There is a concerning thing that happened in 2020 for Sean Doolittle – his velocity dropped off in a big way. And it followed a smaller trend over the previous four years, too. In 2016 he averaged 95.6 MPH on his fastball. Since then it’s been 95.0, 94.4, 93.8, and then last year it fell to 90.8. During the early part of the year he was dealing with a knee injury. When he came back, his velocity was up a little bit, averaging 91.3, but he didn’t pitch long before an oblique injury cost him the final three weeks of the season.
More velocity is better velocity no matter how many times someone wants to scream some pitchers name who “didn’t throw hard”. If Doolittle’s injuries are what led to the big decline in velocity and he’s now healthy, hopefully he can get back into the 92-94 range and touching higher.
In the past, Sean Doolittle has been very good. He’s missed bats and he’s had extremely low walk rates – he’s walked 1.8 batters per 9-innings pitched in his career. And for the most part, he’s kept the baseball in the ballpark. That comes with the caveat, though, that he’s pitched his home games in parks that don’t help home runs, and as everyone knows that doesn’t apply to Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark.
One other thing that Sean Doolittle has done very well in his career is have a low batting average on balls in play against. Batters have a .270 career BABIP against him – one reason he’s consistently outperformed his FIP and xFIP numbers, which attempt to normalize BABIP to a league average number (roughly .300).
As a left-handed pitcher, you’d expect that Sean Doolittle handles left-handed hitters well. That’s a correct assumption. In his career he’s held lefties to a .187/.225/.311 line. But he’s also been really good against right-handed hitters for his career, too, as they own a .218/.263/.354 line against him. While that’s a lot better than the line from lefties, it’s a .617 OPS. With that said, it should be pointed out that in 2019 that right-handed hitters did hit .279/.339/.485 against him.
Everything, however, isn’t just sunshine and roses. As noted, the velocity drop has been happening for years, and in 2020 it was huge. Sean Doolittle is also an extreme fly ball pitcher. Fly balls in Great American Ballpark is usually a bad thing.
That doesn’t mean it has to be, though. Tyler Mahle’s ground ball rate was 29.3% in 2020 and he posted a 3.59 ERA. Dan Straily’s 32% ground ball rate in 2016 resulted in a 3.76 ERA. Trevor Bauer’s ERA last year was 1.73 with a 34.4% ground ball rate. It’s almost a guarantee that the home run rate will go up for Sean Doolittle. The key will be doing what he’s been able to do in the past – walk almost no one, and limit the number of hits he allows (by racking up strikeouts and continuing to have a lower than average BABIP).
We do know is that in the past, Sean Doolittle has been a very, very good reliever. We also know that there are some reasons right now to believe he’s not the same guy today as he was when he was among the best relievers in the game. That’s probably not who the Reds are expecting (though, they are certainly hoping he can be that). The pitcher that Doolittle was in 2019 seems a bit more reasonable as a guy to expect – a good, but not elite reliever.
Sean Doolittle Projections for 2021
ZiPS projects Sean Doolittle for a 3.77 ERA in 2021. PECOTA, which was just released yesterday at Baseball Prospectus projects Doolittle to post a 3.24 ERA. The main difference between the two projections is the BABIP – ZiPS has a .304 projected BABIP for the lefty, while PECOTA has it at .257 on the year. For his career, his BABIP is .270, but he’s been below that number in five different seasons in his career (with a low of .196 in 2018).