The Nationals are reconsidering their usage of closer Sean Doolittle, manager Dave Martinez tells Mark Zuckerman of MASN. Any significant change could affect both the team’s 2019 postseason push and Doolittle’s employment in 2020.
Washington lost in fourteen innings to the Brewers last night, a game which bizarrely saw Milwaukee hit five home runs after the eighth inning, as the Athletic’s Jayson Stark points out (via Twitter). Beyond the sting of losing to a team now only two and a half games behind them in the standings, the marathon afair again magnified the organization’s biggest flaw: its relief corps. While questions about the bullpen’s depth have persisted for months (some might even argue years), now the unit’s one perceived measure of stability is taking the heat.
Doolittle blew a three-run lead in the ninth last night, surrendering a trio of longballs while recording just one out. He’s allowed multiple runs in three of his last five appearances and has coughed up seven homers in nine innings since July 29. That shocking stretch of ineffectiveness has pushed the veteran southpaw’s ERA to 4.33, a far cry from his 2.24 mark between 2017-2018. What’s more, his 25.5% strikeout rate in 2019, while solid, pales in comparison to the elite 33.9% figure he put up over the previous two seasons. In the aggregate, Doolittle’s numbers have dropped from stellar to average.
How can one explain Doolittle’s downturn? Both pitcher and manager believe his workload is taking its toll. Saturday was the reliever’s eighth outing of August, although his 54 appearances on the season only ranks 29th in baseball. Indeed, Wander Suero, not Doolittle, has actually been the Nats’ most-used relief arm. That said, a pitcher who spent time on the injured list every year between 2014 and 2018, as Doolittle had, may need to be handled with further care. Martinez acknowledged he and his reliever will meet today to discuss Doolittle’s workload, and the hurler himself reluctantly expressed a willingness to cut back on his innings, noting he hasn’t “been pulling (his) weight here these last couple weeks.”
It’s possible little will come of this reevaluation. After all, Martinez has worked Doolittle especially hard precisely because of the club’s lackluster bullpen. Daniel Hudson could stand to pick up a few save opportunities, but he’s pitched in 55 games himself and is a two-time Tommy John survivor, so the club surely won’t want to overload him, either (and his peripherals indicate he’d probably be miscast in that role anyhow). Tanner Rainey boasts an electric arm but an 18.8% walk rate, while Roenis Elías is out with a hamstring strain. Speculatively, fellow trade deadline acquisition Hunter Strickland could pick up a few ninth inning opportunities, but it’s obviously a suboptimal situation.
If the club does cut back Doolittle’s innings down the stretch, it’d be disappointing given the club’s slight lead in the NL Wild Card and still-manageable deficit in the NL East. Ironically, though, these struggles could be a boon to the club’s 2020 roster. As MLBTR’s Steve Adams noted Friday, Doolittle’s contract comes equipped with a $6.5 million club option which turns into a mutual option if he records the final out of 16 more games this season. Even considering his abysmal August, he could surely top that minuscule sum on the open market, so the ability to elect free agency would greatly impact his 2020 earning power and potential destination. If Martinez gets more judicious with Doolittle’s role to keep him fresh, the club could stand to pick up an extra year of control as a side benefit.
It seems from his comments Doolittle would be at peace with such a move, since he was forthright in admitting his recent performance has been unacceptable. Indeed, it’s not as if the club would limit his workload solely with the games finished clause in mind. There’s a real case to be made the player needs more rest. In addition to acknowledging some fatigue, Doolittle’s fastball velocity was down two miles per hour last night, and his fastball spin is trending marginally down with it. It behooves everyone involved to get Doolittle right sooner than later.