By Joe Lemire
After all the acrimony of deferring on the positional decision he didn't want to make, laboring through three injury-plagued minor league seasons and enduring a sweltering summer in Phoenix with an impossibly itchy knuckles-to-biceps cast, Sean Doolittle's ascension to the major leagues ultimately came swiftly.
Doolittle, a former two-way college star at Virginia, had made the Athletics' 40-man roster as a first baseman, but a series of injuries -- a twice-torn patella tendon in his left knee and a subluxed tendon in his right wrist -- forced a course correction.
After spending the summer and fall of 2011 relearning to pitch, he returned to High Class-A ball in Stockton (Calif.) to start the 2012 season. But Doolittle stayed there for only 19 days before a promotion to Double-A Midland (Texas). He was there nearly a month, crashing on an air mattress in the living room of two teammates' apartment, before the team embarked on a six-game road trip, after which he was summoned to Triple-A Sacramento, which prompted an immediate shopping trip -- for blazers, he said, and "shirts with collars and pants instead of shorts" -- to meet the requirements of the higher league's travel attire.
Then, after two Triple-A appearances over five days (with eight strikeouts of the 13 batters he faced), Doolittle was on his way to join the major-league club in Oakland, just 10 months after switching to pitching. There were just a few logistical problems.
"My car was still in Stockton, all my clothes were in Midland and I was living out of a bag that I had packed for a six-game road trip in Texas," he said.
Making the majors was a dream come true, but making it as a pitcher was not something that had ever crossed the now 27-year-old's mind. The suggestion to build up his arm strength to pitch had started as a way of occupying his time when he couldn't swing a bat. He says now that he never saw pitching as his ticket.
"I just didn't want to look back [in] 10 years and think, 'What if I had tried it?' " Doolittle said recently. "I didn't want to have any regrets and leave any stone unturned."
Two years after his debut, Doolittle has emerged as the best reliever in a crowded Oakland bullpen, with eight saves and a hard-to-believe 42-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his 29 innings of work. Earlier this spring, the oft-injured first baseman who could barely stay on the field was rewarded with a five-year contract that included two team options, a nearly unprecedented commitment of security for a relief pitcher, widely known as the most volatile position on any ball club.
"If you reflect on it, it's pretty amazing, but if you're part of it every day, he just is who he is right now," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "You look at the numbers and the performance, it's terrific, but if you back it up and look at it in a different perspective, it's pretty unbelievable. It's a one-of-a-kind story."
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During Doolittle's college recruitment out of Shawnee High in Medford, N.J., Virginia pitching coach Karl Kuhn asked the young man a poignant question: "Do you think that you're a pitcher that hits or are you a hitter that pitches?" Doolittle lamented over his answer for long enough that Kuhn told him not to worry and that they could get back to it. Just then, he piped up with his reply: "Coach, I just think I'm a baseball player."
(Incidentally, Kuhn noted, fellow Virginia two-way star Danny Hultzen, the Mariners' No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft, gave the exact same answer.)
Doolittle was a good enough baseball player that, after Notre Dame assistant Brian O'Connor took the head coaching job at Virginia, he prioritized him as his first signed recruit. Indeed, Doolittle joined O'Connor's first recruiting class. In doing so, he was joining a program with little baseball tradition outside of left-handed reliever Javier Lopez and two men who were immediate predecessors: Ryan Zimmerman and Mark Reynolds.
As a freshman, Doolittle started at first base, batted third and served as set-up man in the late innings, before returning to first base when the closer pitched the ninth.
"College is a rare opportunity to do both, and thank God you do," said Kuhn. "He was drafted in the 40-something round out of high school as a pitcher, came here and was drafted in the sandwich round as a position player and hitter and ended up being a big leaguer on the mound. I think that the lesson there is, We don't [yet] really know what they are."
Doolittle was a starting pitcher as a sophomore and junior, earning ACC Player of the Year in his sophomore season and leaving the program as its career leader in both RBIs (167) and pitching wins (22). Most big-league teams, Doolittle said, were interested in him as a position player, though a handful preferred him as a pitcher. Pretty much every club called to gauge his preference, hoping to avoid a case in which he was itching to switch at the first sign of struggle.
"I don't care -- my goal was to make you make a decision," he said of telling teams about the pitcher vs. player debate. "I think the general feeling was that the ceiling might have been a little bit higher as a hitter and, 'Let's see what he can do if he just focuses on hitting.'"
On draft day, his parents and grandparents joined him in Charlottesville at the house where he lived with teammates, a few of whom also had a vested interest in the draft. The rest of them, however, were merely curious where they would be going; Doolittle was also waiting to find out what he'd be doing.
He knew of a few scenarios whereby if Player A was selected with Pick X, that he'd go to Team B with Pick Y. The first round of the draft was on television, so he was hoping to go then.
"None of those worked out," Doolittle said. "Then it was just a waiting game, and I got really bored with it. I got tired of watching other guys get picked, so we were outside in the yard chipping golf balls, and it got too hot so I was watching a Deadliest Catch marathon on TV."
Finally, someone watching the draft ticker online saw his name scroll by with the 41st overall pick in the supplemental round. Told he was going to Oakland as a hitter, Doolittle said, "Sweet."
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After the first time Doolittle tore his left knee's patella tendon, in May 2009, he was treated with a platelet-rich plasma injection. He was in second full season as a pro, playing first base and batting in the middle of the Triple-A order. There was no indication that he would have swung a bat in a meaningful game for the last time as a professional.
That fall, he went to Oakland's instructional league with plans to make up his lost playing time in the Puerto Rican Winter League, when he tore the tendon a second time while swinging and missing at a pitch. He had surgery in October, but as of July 2010, the knee hadn't healed enough, so he had a second operation.
That arthroscopic procedure repaired the knee, allowing him to rehab for a return to the field. Doolittle graduated his rehab program in extended spring training 2011. Early one week, the trainer told him he'd be rejoining the Triple-A club when they returned home to Sacramento on Friday. On Tuesday, he swung and missed at a fastball up and away and heard a pop. He had torn a tendon in his wrist and was outfitted with an elongated cast.
"I couldn't bend my arm," he recalled. "I'm walking around Arizona in 120 degrees, and it [itched] terribly."
For the first weeks, all he could do was ride the stationary bike, ice and watch television in recurring cycles. He wasn't even allowed to run for fear of tripping and landing on his bad arm. Discouragement set in, doubly so because injuries at the big-league level created an opportunity that could have been his.
"There would have been a chance I would have been called up that year, but I was hurt, too," Doolittle said. "Watching the way that unfolded from the trainer's room was a little frustrating."
Eventually, farm director Keith Lieppman asked, "Why don't you just start throwing?" The plan then was still for Doolittle to return as a first baseman, but this might help stave off boredom.
The pitching rehab coordinator, Garvin Alston, devised a six-week program for Doolittle to do mechanics work on the side and throw at increasing distances. There was one catch: Doolittle couldn't catch. Like a quarterback afraid of jamming his fingers, Doolittle required a personal catcher, a duty that usually fell to Alston himself.
"It was a lot of fun," Alston said of those long-toss sessions. "He's a very witty guy, a very smart guy. He's always keeping up with everything going on, on the Internet or the news or what-have-you. There were some great conversations, some good laughter -- his attitude has always been good about whatever came his way."
What also helped Doolittle was an unfortunate coincidence: his younger brother, Ryan, was also an A's minor-leaguer rehabbing in Phoenix that same summer. Ryan Doolittle, a pitcher, had a strained flexor tendon in his throwing elbow, and both knew they'd be in town all summer, so they rented an apartment together, talked shop and kept each other positive.
"I think having each other there helped us both really get through the process of that mental grind that rehab can be sometimes," Doolittle said. "It was weird because, combined, we made a full healthy pitcher, you know?"
In mid-August that summer at a follow-up appointment, the doctor told Doolittle his wrist would either need surgery, which required six-to-eight more months of rehab, or they could try resting it for three months in hopes it would heal naturally. Either way, Doolittle's 2012 season as a hitter was in jeopardy. He walked out of the office, called Lieppman and told him he wanted to officially convert to pitching.
A short while later, the A's had one of their advanced scouts evaluate Doolittle during live batting practice. It was the first time Doolittle had pitched in front of a radar gun since college, when he threw 89 to 92 mph as a starter at Virginia. Oakland's scout told him, "You didn't throw a pitch under 94."
Alston worked on adjusted Doolittle's mechanics some to leverage his 6-foot-3 frame and knew his protégé had a real shot at making the majors in his very first extended spring outing against the Giants, when he split the game with full-time pitcher Pedro Figueroa, who was also rehabbing.
"Next thing you know, the ball was just jumping out of his hand, and it had a little bit of projection and trajectory where the ball was going on a downhill plane," Alston said. "That's when I knew there was something special here."
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Doolittle logged 116 1/3 big-league relief innings in his first two seasons and returned to Charlottesville this January as an honored guest for Virginia baseball's annual fundraising banquet. Pitchers and catchers were reporting to spring training two weeks later, so he needed to throw a bullpen while he was in town. He went to his old home at Davenport Field, drafting the club's graduate assistant to catch for him with Kuhn, his old pitching coach, watching.
The pair started talking about his rarely used slider, when Kuhn offered a suggestion to adjust his grip to make it more like it was in college.
"I probably threw about seven sliders," Doolittle said, "and five of them were like the best ones I've ever thrown."
Asked about it later, Kuhn tried to deflect the credit but conceded that the end result was very positive for Doolittle.
"He had a smile from ear to ear," the coach said, "although I couldn't see the smile because it was underneath that beard."
Ah, yes, the beard. It's an unkempt reddish mane that obscures most of his face. He pranked his Twitter followers with an April Fools' Day joke in which he pretended to shave it. Doolittle is a cerebral interview -- and he was 95 percent done the New York Times crossword puzzle when I approached to speak with him -- who also is willing to show his personality on social media or when rocking out to "Careless Whisper."
Alston and Kuhn, who coached Doolittle half a decade apart, offered nearly identical praise in discussing his intellect and his ability to apply quickly what he had been instructed to do. Often that implementation was apparent the next day; other times, it was only evident much later.
Kuhn distributes a binder of his pitching rules to all incoming pitchers at Virginia. When Doolittle made his postseason debut in the 2012 playoffs, he retired the first batter he faced, which was one point of emphasis. Kuhn texted to congratulate Doolittle, "Great job getting the first guy you see."
"His text back was the rest of the rules that the bullpen has to follow," Kuhn said.
In Oakland's bullpen this season, Doolittle has emerged as the closer. He has converted eight of nine save chances. His 0.69 WHIP ranks third among all major-league pitchers with 25 or more innings, and his 13.0 K/9 rate ranks sixth.
"He had an electric fastball from the start, and I think that's why he progressed so quickly through the system because the guys at the lower levels couldn't catch up to it," Oakland catcher Derek Norris said. "He's deceptive, added with velocity, and when you combine those two, it makes for a lot of swings and misses."
Doolittle still throws his fastball, which averages 93.9 mph, the overwhelming majority of the time -- 84.9 percent of the time, in fact, according to FanGraphs.com. It's not just the velocity that makes it effective -- the pitch has great late life. So does Doolittle.
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Joe Lemire is a former Sports Illustrated staff writer and current New York-based freelance writer who can be found on Twitter at @LemireJoe.