WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Sean Doolittle’s left wrist is a rigid joint that has provided him great wealth. The stiffness where the ulna, radius and five metacarpal bones meet has allowed Doolittle an extra something, a differentiation, on his fastball. He relentlessly throws it from the left side with all-star-level results. He is a millionaire in large part because of the extra life on that single pitch, which he uses at a predictable frequency that would normally undermine success. Instead, he’s made an enviable living from it.
He is hunting for a new complement. The search began on the bullpen mounds of the Nationals’ spring training complex in West Palm Beach, expanded to live batting practice on back fields and is ongoing in games with meaningless final results. Doolittle wants to find comfort when throwing a slider. A simple phrase, theoretically accompanied by a simple pursuit. But, the stiff wrist, the oddities of baseball, the belief when throwing something while uncomfortable are all working against him. It initially feels like dragging an anvil through the desert.
Spring has always been the time for tinkering. With a stance, with a grip, with even a new glove. Former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter showed up annually in search of a changeup. He would roll into Jupiter, Fla., with what he believed was the answer. Finally.
“Every spring training, he goes, ‘Oh! I got the grip. I got the grip. It’s a reverse-fascia knuckle under,’” new Nationals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said with a laugh. “Then all of a sudden, it’s fastball, cutter, curveball. That’s your repertoire.”
Carpenter pitched 15 years. He won a Cy Young Award and was a three-time all-star. He threw changeups four percent of the time despite his annual spring longing.
His story exemplifies to the tao of tinkering. Some pitchers can find a path to a big curveball because they are tall. Others have extra action on a slider because they are pushing the ball toward the plate instead of coming over the top. But, sometimes, even the smart ones can’t discover how to create a preferred action. That makes February and March months of being stumped instead of ones for revelation.
This is not about Doolittle changing what he does best. It’s about supplying doubt and efficiency.
Doolittle hopes a slight shift in the position of his thumb brings him a new weapon. Last season, he threw 39 sliders among his 465 pitches, most inspired by Matt Wieters’ willingness to flash three fingers.
He used the slider almost exclusively against left-handed hitters. They had a hard time with it. However, they have a hard time with just about anything Doolittle throws. They have hit .192 against him in his career.
Doolittle’s hope is that by finding a grip akin to his four-seam fastball grip, he can find a natural way to using his slider more often, and, most crucial, against left-handed and right-handed hitters. He used the same methodology to find a comfort level with his changeup. It sits slightly different in his hand than his fastball. The repositioning causes it to come out like a dud — at least comparatively — which is the point.
“When it comes to a breaking ball, I don’t have great hand action,” Doolittle said. “I can’t manipulate the ball. I’m not a guy that can turn it over and throw a two-seamer or get on the outside of it. I throw with a pretty stiff wrist and that’s part of the reason my fastball has some of the deception that it has.
“But it makes it difficult for me to manipulate the ball when trying to throw a breaking ball. So, trying to find something that feels in my hand like a fastball, I’m doing some stuff with moving my thumb around the bottom of the ball right now. So, it’s basically finding a grip that feels comfortable in my hand, I can just let the grip do the work. I don’t have to try to do too much with it.”
He has been hunting for an at-least serviceable slider since entering the major leagues in 2012. It has worked sporadically, which is not enough to bolster Doolittle’s faith or make hitters wonder. He threw it 11.5 percent of the time in 2014, according to Fangraphs. Doolittle was an all-star that year with a FIP of 1.71, 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings, and a WHIP of 0.734. It’s difficult for a closer to do much better. His usage went down eight percent in his limited work the following season when his shoulder was injured. It crept back to 5.2 percent last season, when he used his changeup a career-high 7.1 percent of the time. That was directly because of Wieters.
“His fastball is special, and we never want to lose how special his fastball is,” Wieters said. “But, any time you can put another pitch in and provide doubt to either right-handers or left-handers, it’s going to make his fastball even better. I think that’s the key. Guys at this level have gifts and something that makes them different from everywhere else, which his fastball does. But, if he can add something else that all of a sudden keeps a hitter from really trying to cheat for his fastball, then it’s going to give even more of an advantage.
“I actually love when guys come to spring training and focus on tinkering with one pitch — not forgetting who they are. Having the confidence like, ‘I’m not going to scrap this after it doesn’t go right for two our three outings. I’m going to work on this and we’re going to get it right.’ That’s the mentality that I think Doc has coming in.”
Fear is a factor. The base nature of being a relief pitcher in the major leagues provides volatility. One blowup can skew the math for a season. Three of those can cost a job. Why would you turn to something that’s not your best pitch when your salary is on the line?
A change like Doolittle is trying to make is more often performed by a starting pitcher. Throwing the same three pitches for six or seven innings over a decade tends to wear on success. Max Scherzer has worked the last three seasons to perfect his so-called cutter — what he refers to as his “power slider” — in order to dismantle left-handed hitters. Scherzer was successful without it. He pocketed an American League Cy Young Award and $210 million contract before the addition. But, he’s mastered it the last two seasons, enabling him to add a 93-mph pitch that bores into the hands of left-handed hitters. His slider usage rose almost four percent from 2015 to 2016. It jumped another six percent from 2016 to 2017. He has won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in that time. These things are not a coincidence.
Scherzer also already had command at his disposal. For someone more erratic, like Gio Gonzalez, just trying to harness what already exists is enough of a chore.
“Sean is a very intelligent man,” Gonzalez said. “To him, it might come out a little easier. The guy might figure out the Rubik’s Cube faster than I will. For him, he might understand that a small touch will get him to where he wants to be. Maybe he doesn’t want to do too much drastic because he still has a powerful fastball. … It’s a little bit tougher for me because I’m still trying to locate a pitch before I do anything else.”
Reliever Shawn Kelley is similar to Doolittle in his two-pitch dominance. He throws fastballs and sliders. That’s the reason Washington provided him with the rare three-year deal as a reliever. Kelley threw some changeups early in his career. He hasn’t thrown one for almost five years.
“I’ve seen guys do it late in their career,” Kelley said. “Add a changeup or add another pitch. Really, it’s just about getting out there and throwing it, throwing when you’re warming up and trying it against hitters. Even when you’re uncomfortable. That’s what will help you to learn.
“Over the years I’ve tinkered with grips for sliders and grips for fastballs. At the end of the day, it’s when you’re a bit uncomfortable throwing a pitch, it’s making yourself throw it and having the cajones to throw it. Maybe in a game when you’re up 10 or down 10, so what if you give up a hit? If you waste it or it bounces or it goes over the catcher’s head, whatever. At least you did it. That’s one hurdle to get past, that uncomfortableness.”
Kelley, in his age-34 season, is going to stay in his comfort zone.
“You can try all you want, but some people, the way you come through your delivery, the way you pronate, the way your arm goes. … People are made to throw certain pitches,” Kelley said. “You’re not going to see a lot of guys who push the ball like me have big curveballs. Craig Kimbrel has one that’s similar, but his is very rare. It’s like a 90-mph curveball. If you have guys that are tall like (6-foot-8) Dellin Betances or whatever you get a big curveball. Some guys are meant to throw certain pitches. Some guys are freaks like Max — or when I played with Felix [Hernandez] in Seattle — they can grab any grip and it’s the nastiest pitch ever. It’s just all in working at it. At the same time, I think you have to sometimes step back and realize who you are and what you need to do to be successful, and stay on that path.”
Exploration and randomness come naturally to Doolittle. He eloped with his wife, Eireann Dolan, just before the playoffs last season. His Twitter name is Obi-Sean Kenobi. Once you view his red beard, these things begin to add up.
So, trying to figure out a pitch is not an outlandish pursuit.
Lilliquist’s prime pitch was the slider. He has shown the multiple grips he used to Doolittle, though one has not has not stuck. It has served as extra information in a time when Doolittle is searching for a tweak that could come from repositioning the ball in his hand less than an inch from where it was prior.
“So much of it, too, is mindset,” Doolittle said. “Where do you want to start the pitch and what are you thinking? Some guys emphasize what they do with their fingers or their hand at the end of a pitch. So many times in baseball, when you’re trying to make an adjustment, all it takes is someone trying to explain it to you just a little bit different or use a different term or maybe phrase it in a way you haven’t heard before and maybe it starts to click.”
Doolittle is two weeks away from his first opportunity to try the slider when it matters. After fireworks, and big introductions and eight-and-a-half innings, he could be on the mound opening day in Cincinnati to protect a lead. Will Wieters drop three fingers? If he does, will Doolittle shake or come set following weeks in the Florida sun searching for a solution? That moment, when theory and tinkering and hope meet outcome, is what will determine the future of his slider. Maybe it will help send him to the All-Star Game in his home park. Maybe the pitch will be sent over his head into the outfield. He just has to be willing to find out, which may be the hardest part.