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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Sean Doolittle

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Sean Doolittle’s 2020 season was objectively doo-doo. At 34, can he be trusted to do a little more?

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Former All-Star Sean Doolittle is coming off the worst season in his career by far. His 8.28 FIP dwarfed his already XXL 5.87 ERA, and his walk, homer, hit and strikeout rates were all career-worsts. Chalking up his awful rate stats entirely to small sample size variance would bely some real slippage, granted he pitched only 7 23 innings across 11 outings in 2020. Doolittle’s bright red flag, again, is his drop in velocity that could only be expedited if he started throwing with his other arm.

Since 2018, Doolittle has lost 3.1 mph on his fastball, and 2.8 mph since 2019. If the 34-year-old was a craftier veteran, the decline in speed might not matter as much. However, he has never thrown less than 80 percent fastballs, and is effectively a one-and-a-half pitch pitcher to batters on either side of the plate. In 2020, he threw a handful of sliders exclusively to lefties, and brought back the splitter he’s used against righties.

From either side of the plate, hitters can sit dead-red and expect a fastball from Doolittle, since he throws it on more than four out of every five pitches. That works if you’re Chad Green and you throw in the upper-nineties with awesome rise, but is significantly less effective if what you have to offer is little more than what is colloquially known as, “lefty poo.”

Against Doolittle’s 2020 four-seamer, batters hit .381, slugged .714, and posted a wOBA of .465. Even though that’s probably unsustainably bad, it’s so far removed from good to imagine a 2021 comeback for Doolittle without anything short of a total reinvention. Despite the Nationals’ overall success in 2019, he had taken a step back anyway, and 2020 only exacerbated his weaknesses.

Doolittle’s velocity on all of his pitches will likely only continue to plummet as the attrition of time continues its linear progression, and there doesn’t seem to be a blueprint for the once-great closer to recalibrate a path towards success. It’s a lot easier for a pitch to be effective when it comes as a total surprise. Doolittle’s slider has been successful in its sparse usage, but that is probably a result of its use in this relative context at least as much as its objective quality, since its movement on both the vertical and horizontal is below average, and only getting worse each season.

Since its inception in 2016, Doolittle’s splitter has been the worst of his three pitches by wOBA in all five years. Neither could be consistently counted upon, were Doolittle to decide to rejigger his pitch mix with a bit more even distribution across his already limited arsenal. Given that 80 percent of his pitches are the fastball equivalent of the grinning turd emoji, with only one of the other two being even potentially of big-league quality, Sean Doolittle might be totally fried if he just can’t throw hard anymore.

Even so, Doolittle seems like he might be one of the best human beings in the major leagues, and I genuinely wish him the best — so long as he’s gainfully employed somewhere other than the Bronx.