Sean Doolittle has enjoyed a non-newsworthy offseason, which is how the A’s closer likes it.
Last January, he made headlines when his aching shoulder left him unable to even play catch. That foretold a frustrating season that relegated Doolittle to just 12 appearances, and Oakland’s bullpen crumbled in his absence.
A year later, Doolittle says his left shoulder feels normal as he prepares for spring training, and there isn’t a better piece of news A’s officials can hear.
Say all you want about the new additions to Oakland’s bullpen – they are significant. But the primary key to the relief crew rebounding from an awful 2015 is Doolittle returning to full health and locking down the ninth inning.
“That’s everything,” catcher Stephen Vogt said. “He’s our closer, our guy. He’s the leader of that bullpen. For him, it wasn’t the year he wanted. It wasn’t the year we needed. Really, that (injury) kind of deflated our bullpen from day one.”
When Doolittle plays catch with his younger brother, Ryan -- a non-roster invitee to A’s big league camp this spring -– his shoulder feels fresh and strong. Just as it should this time of year. He’s been doing his regular long-toss sessions, and he’s scheduled to start throwing off the mound next week.
“I promised I wasn’t going to tell anybody I’m in the best shape of my life, because I’ll never be 21 again,” said Doolittle, 29. “But I think, for a lot of different reasons, this is the most important offseason of my career, and I’ve been going about it with that mentality. I’ve worked really hard to get my shoulder and body in the best shape I can to get ready to go.”
Dealing with two different shoulder strains last season, Doolittle made just one appearance before August. That contributed to an unsettled bullpen, with manager Bob Melvin shuttling through different setup men, none of whom experienced consistent success in getting the ball to replacement closer Tyler Clippard.
The A’s 4.56 bullpen ERA was the highest in the American League. Their 25 blown saves were second-most in the league and the relievers served up 74 home runs, second-most in franchise history. In response, the A’s signed free agents Ryan Madson and John Axford to serve as setup men. They acquired Liam Hendriks from Toronto, a converted starter who pairs a mid-to-high 90’s fastball with a nasty slider. The hope is that veteran Marc Rzepczynski, who came over from San Diego, can be an effective lefty specialist.
The aim is to restore order to the seventh and eighth innings and safely transfer leads to Doolittle, who went from converted first baseman in 2011 to All-Star closer in 2014.
Much was made about the lefty’s diminished velocity when he returned from the disabled list last season. His fastball initially was clocking 90-91 rather than the upper 90’s heat of prior seasons. Doolittle is confident his velocity will keep improving. That’s important for a reliever who rarely goes to his secondary pitches, though Doolittle to a degree downplays the importance of fastball velocity.
“I think by like the last week of September it was pretty much back, back in the 93, 94, 95 range pretty consistently,” he said. “I do think there’s a little more in there. But for me, the velocity isn’t quite as important as the deception that I have. And a lot of that has to do with my mechanics, staying with my mechanics, repeating my delivery and moving the ball around.
“That’s another thing that helps me get away with throwing so many fastballs. So far I’ve been able to locate the ball well enough to get away with it and have success with it.”
Vogt knows how much a healthy Doolittle means to the A’s.
“You take the closer out and it’s going to put you behind the 8-ball to get the year going,” the catcher said. “So having him back and healthy, I’m very confident he’s gonna have his velocity back and have that life on his fastball, and I’m excited to see what he’s gonna do.”