Doolittle knows he'll 'have to earn' closer role

February 8th, 2021

CINCINNATI -- Free-agent reliever has been an All-Star closer and won a World Series with the Nationals in 2019. But upon the signing of a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Reds that was formally announced on Monday, Doolittle understood the closer role isn’t a lock.

“No, I’m super open-minded about how I might be used,” said Doolittle, who agreed to terms with Cincinnati on Feb. 2 and passed his physical. “I don’t think I have any right to come in and expect to be handed that spot after the year I had last year.

“But I will say, I think I’ve made a ton of improvements. I’m really excited about where I’m at heading into Spring Training. I hope to be able to pitch well enough that I’m in the mix there late in games. But I also know I have to earn that spot.”

Doolittle, 34, threw just 7 2/3 innings over 11 appearances with a 5.87 ERA for the Nationals in 2020, after he missed time with right knee fatigue and a right oblique strain. The two-time All-Star has a lifetime 3.07 ERA, a 0.97 WHIP and 111 saves over nine seasons with Oakland and Washington.

In 2019, as the Nationals won a World Series, Doolittle recorded a career-high 29 saves.

“I’m super biased but I feel like I can still pitch at that level,” he said. “Then last year, I didn’t come out of quarantine very well. I was throwing into a net in my backyard and I think I picked up some bad habits. I couldn’t make the corrections quick enough in Summer Camp. I started the season in a really bad spot.

“You come to a point in your career where you do a lot of it on instinct, do a lot of it on feel and when stuff goes sideways on you, you can’t always make the fix the right way because you don’t know exactly what is going wrong or why it’s going off the rails. That was a wakeup call for me, for sure. If I want to extend my career, if I want to pitch at a high level, there were some things I really was going to have to address.”

Doolittle had some connections that helped make joining the Reds a reality. He has spent the offseason working out at Push Performance in Tempe, Ariz., where Cincinnati’s new development coach, Simon Mathews, was director of pitching. Reds bullpen catcher Nate Irving also worked with him there.

“I think here with those two guys, we were really able to take things to the next level and make some significant improvements, but working with them every day, I got to learn a lot about the Reds organization just from conversations that kind of came up,” Doolittle said.

Doolittle was previously a teammate of Reds starter Sonny Gray in Oakland as well. And he knew that Cincinnati had made strides on the technical and analytical side of pitching.

“The way they are developing guys, the way they are using data, the way they are using analytics and interpreting it to keep players having their best chance to be the best version of themselves throughout the course of a long season was something that I was really excited about,” Doolittle said. “We’ve been using a lot of similar … terminologies and philosophies, that’s how I’ve been training over the course of the offseason.”

Cincinnati didn’t have a clear-cut closer for 2021 after Raisel Iglesias was traded to the Angels for reliever Noé Ramirez in December. The move saved the Reds over $9 million in salary. Another potential closer, Archie Bradley, was non-tendered and has since signed with the Phillies.

Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims and Michael Lorenzen are all considered possibilities to close.

“Sean's been a good closer in the big leagues for a long time, so for us, he comes in with a track record of doing that,” Reds general manager Nick Krall said. “Good veteran presence in the clubhouse. We feel that he'll fit in really well with this group of guys. He has a chance to pitch in the back of the bullpen. That's first and foremost.”

Doolittle was quick to praise Garrett and rest of the Reds’ bullpen.

“I love the energy and passion that Amir brings to the mound, whenever he’s out there,” Doolittle said. “I think that kind of energy can be infectious. I think -- from the outside looking in -- that’s certainly one of the mentalities you want in a closer, that fearlessness, that confidence, wanting the ball with the game on the line. I see some really cool things about some of their other guys too.”

Besides enduring injuries last season, Doolittle also experienced diminished velocity on his fastball. At its peak, Doolittle’s four-seam fastball averaged 95.4 mph in 2016, and it never tracked less than 93.3 mph for a season. In '20, the four-seamer averaged 90.7 mph.

The data Doolittle has received over the winter has shown him that he’s throwing with higher velocity, along with improved spin rate and spin efficiency. He has also developed a new breaking ball, which he said profiles more like a curveball than a slider.

“I’m just excited about the way my body is moving,” Doolittle said. “The ball is coming out really clean. I think the velocity is going to be there once Spring Training starts for sure.”