Doolittle's incredible journey

ROB CARR / GETTY IMAGES Shawnee's Sean Doolittle has overcome multiple injuries.
ROB CARR / GETTY IMAGES Shawnee's Sean Doolittle has overcome multiple injuries.
Posted: July 17, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS - With seven players in Minneapolis last night, the Oakland Athletics didn't just lead all of baseball in wins entering the All-Star break, but also in All-Star players. No other team had more than four.

More than a couple of those A's players took circuitous routes to Target Field.

Former Tampa Bay Rays ace Scott Kazmir, who started opposite Cole Hamels in Game 1 of the 2008 World Series, took a detour to an independent league 2 years ago before his career revival. Brandon Moss, once a discarded Phillies minor leaguer, made his All-Star debut with his fourth big-league organization. Jeff Samardzija had to wear a generic jersey last night since he was selected as an All-Star by the National League less than 48 hours after he had switched to the American League, having been traded from the Chicago Cubs.

Although each of those story lines has some merit in being pretty unusual, they all still fail in comparison with that of A's closer Sean Doolittle, the pride of Tabernacle, N.J.

Two years, 3 months ago, Doolittle was a 25-year-old former hitting prospect attempting to reboot his big-league dreams as a pitcher.

Since his minor league pitching career lasted all of 2 months, giving way to a dominant run out of Oakland's bullpen for 2 years, it's fair to say it was a successful shift, from rightfield to the pitching rubber. Doolittle has racked up 14 saves for the first-place A's since moving to the closer's role in mid-May.

He leads all big-league pitchers with a a ridiculous 31.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio (minimum 40 innings). The next closest pitcher is Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma, at 10.00.

"When we started it," the 27-year-old Doolittle said, "it was more that we didn't want to look back in 10 to 15 years and say, 'Why didn't we try this?' "

Doolittle did have a pitching background, although, when he made the switch in 2012, it had been 5 years since he pitched regularly. He went 30-3 in his high school pitching career at Shawnee High in Medford, N.J., including a state final victory in his junior season, when he struck out a school-record 23 batters.

The Atlanta Braves drafted him as a pitcher a year later, in 2004, in the 39th round. But he chose to honor his commitment to the University of Virginia, where he pitched in 56 games in 3 years but also started regularly in the middle of the Cavaliers' lineup.

Doolittle hit a team-high 11 home runs in his freshman season and led the team in RBI in each of the next 2 years, when he was a first-team All-ACC selection. He was named ACC Player of the Year in 2006.

Oakland selected him with the 41st pick of the 2007 draft. Three players who went to spring training with the Phillies this year were picked before Doolittle: Phillippe Aumont (11th overall), Joe Savery (19th) and Ben Revere (28th).

While the Phillies chose to make their two-way college player, Savery, a pitcher, Oakland wanted Doolittle to be a hitter. He obliged, hitting .286 with a .854 OPS, 22 home runs and 91 RBI between Class A and Double A in 2008, his first full minor league season.

But then three lost seasons followed. Doolittle, who primarily played first base but also saw time in rightfield, tore the patella tendon in his left knee twice and also suffered a broken right wrist.

In 2010 and '11, he played in only one minor league game. It was during the summer of 2011, when Doolittle began to contemplate a new career.

"I was looking up college classes," he said. "I was that close to hanging them up."

With his right arm in a cast, from his knuckles to his elbow, Doolittle wasn't able to wear a glove, but he was able to see whether anything was left in his pitching arm. And he finally encountered a little bit of luck, too: He found a catching arm in his brother, Ryan, an A's minor league righthander rehabbing a strained flexor.

"I had to have somebody catch for me because I couldn't put a glove on," Doolittle said. "The joke was that, combined, we were like a healthy pitcher."

When the 2012 season began, the Sean Doolittle Pitching Experiment took off.

He struck out 21 of the 39 batters he faced in 3 weeks at Class A and was just as dominant when he was promoted to Double A before the end of April. Exactly 2 months after his appearance at Class A Stockton, Doolittle made his big-league debut out of Oakland's 'pen, on June 5, 2012, against the Texas Rangers.

He's remained in Oakland's relief corps ever since. Doolittle has a 3.04 ERA in 156 career games, with 183 strikeouts and 26 walks in 160 innings.

In the All-Star Game last night, he pitched to three batters in the eighth inning, allowing a single and striking out two.

Among relievers who have pitched at least 150 innings in the last three seasons, only Boston All-Star closer Koji Uehara (11.17) has a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Doolittle (7.04). Doolittle has struck out 63 while walking only two batters in 43 2/3 innings this season.

Moss thinks Doolittle's uncanny strike-throwing is more remarkable than his transition from hitter to pitcher.

"He really only throws one pitch," Moss said of his teammate's rising, four-seam fastball. "To be as dominant as he is with the one pitch that he has, I think that's more impressive than anything else . . . A lot of guys throw hard, a lot of guys throw a four-seam fastball, but his has that little bit of rise to it that stays above guys' bats. When you're facing him, you feel like you're seeing the ball a lot better than you're seeing it."

"He's got dominant stuff," said South Jersey's other All-Star, Los Angeles Angels outfielder and Millville, N.J., native Mike Trout. "The numbers show it."

Like Trout, Doolittle was locked up by his team in the form of a multiyear contract this spring. He signed a 5-year, $10.5 million deal in April. Oakland also holds two club options for 2019 and 2020 that can pay the lefthander an additional $12.5 million.

Three years removed from wondering whether he should give up baseball and try a new career, Doolittle has financial security for life. And he's one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the game and the closer for baseball's best team.

"It's pretty cool, says a lot about him," Samardzija said of his new teammate's journey. "Pretty resilient, hardheaded, knows what his goals are. Obviously he's got a lot of fight in him."

"It's a crazy story," Oakland catcher Derek Norris said. "And just the type of guy he is, you couldn't be happier for him."

Doolittle is the second South Jersey-raised Oakland closer to appear in an All-Star Game in the last five seasons; Haddon Heights native Andrew Bailey (Paul VI High School), now with the Yankees, appeared in back-to-back All-Star Games in 2009 and 2010.

But his journey to major league All-Star is like no other.

"It's literally in the back of my mind everyday when I'm walking onto the field and out there shagging fly balls during batting practice, about how lucky I am to be able to do what I'm doing and how close I was [to being finished]," said Doolittle, whose parents still live in the Philadelphia area. "The fact that I'm here makes it really rewarding."

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21


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