Sean Doolittle is a lefty and throws one pitch 87% of the time. Even without knowing his back story — he was a first base prospect that couldn’t stay healthy on the field, and pitching was his chance to “activate his insurance plan” as he put it — you’d be forgiven for throwing the dreaded “LOOGY” moniker on him. First basemen aren’t generally known for their arms, he can’t have a great breaking ball with so little experience pitching, and he’s a lefty with one pitch. He must be there to get lefties out.
But no, Doolittle is not a LOOGY, and he talked to me a little about how he makes that one pitch work for him.
Not many throw one pitch more often, relatively, than Sean Doolittle. With a minimum of 40 innings, only Jake McGee, Aroldis Chapman, Ronald Belisario and Kenley Jansen throw their fastball more exclusively. You might notice that most of those guys are also known for their plus-plus velocity. Doolittle’s 93.6 average velocity on his fastball last year ranks second-to-last of the crew.
By overall results, though, he hangs with that crew. Ninety-three-six is still good velocity. But there is a pitcher on the list that is a little more like Doolittle than the rest — Jake McGee. McGee throws his fastball 87.2% of the time. It goes 95.7 mph on average. His fastball has 9.5 inches of vertical break and 6.6 inches of horizontal break. Doolittle throws his fastball 86.8% of the time. It goes 93.6 mph on average. His fastball has 9.6 inches of vertical break and 6.4 inches of horizontal break. Looks like a pitch comp to me!
But Doolittle thinks there’s more to this than just break and velocity. “I throw three quarters and I’m so far up the first base side of the rubber that it comes in on a diagonal, and that’s why it’s such an effective pitch against righties” Doolittle said to me. And the lefty has a reverse platoon split indeed. It’s a small sample, but he strikes out seven percent more right-handed batters than lefties.
How far out is the former firstbaseman’s placement on the first base side? Sorta. He has the 34th-most extreme “x” value on his release. Right between Sean Marshall, Charlie Furbush and Randy Wolf, there’s Doolittle.
If you follow the list all the way to the very extreme — another half foot or so — you do get some interesting names: Jake Diekman, Joe Thatcher, Sean Burnett, Javier Lopez and Clay Rapada are the top five. As a group, these lefties have a career FIP around three against lefties, and close to five against righties. They aren’t all strictly LOOGYs, but they have LOOGY tendencies.
Seems strange that a lefty with one pitch would be less of a LOOGY by embracing a release point more associated with LOOGYs in the past. But this post from Jeremy Greenhouse on how players fare against extreme arm slots might provide a clue. Take a look at Ryan Howard‘s offense against different arm slots. Yes, he’s bad against the LOOGY slot, but look at the extreme righties — they give him fits too. Perhaps any extreme works to disrupt traditional splits?
And of course there’s more to it. “I try to do a good job of hiding the ball with my front side — it kind of comes out of a weird spot with my high front side and where I throw, my release point is kind of by my ear,” said Doolittle, adding that “deception is kind of why I get away” with throwing one pitch so often. That’s a bit hard to test, but we can take a look:
It’s not the greatest GIF, but it gives you a sense of where Doolittle sets up on the rubber, his high front side (watch the glove), and a little bit of the release point by the ear.
If we bring this back to Jake McGee, we can focus this ramble a bit. Doolittle has a fastball that looks like McGee’s, but it comes in two miles per hour slower. That’s significant. And McGee has always been known for having a league-worthy slider. Doolittle? The “lack of even an average breaking ball” was something that kept him from being drafted as a pitcher. Doolittle can hang, though, because he uses deception and a funky release point to augment his stuff. He also thinks being able to place it on both sides of the plate helps him, something that was part of his scouting report in college (when he threw 89-92 as a starter).
Maybe the one-pitch magic won’t last forever, but as Sean Doolittle will remind you — “I’ve only been pitching for two years.” He spent the offseason working on his slider and he has confidence in his changeup, and he’s going to keep honing his craft. But for a guy that turned to pitching “because I didn’t want to retire on the DL,” Doolittle has already done a great deal.