Over the past few years, we have seen various organizations churn out high quality pitchers with ease. Whether it was developing lesser known minor league arms into useful major leaguers, repurposing pitchers who didn’t workout for other teams with more success, or reviving the careers of pitchers whose careers have seen better days, we could count on these teams to help pitchers realize the potential that your favorite team probably couldn’t.
Joining this ilk of teams is the Cincinnati Reds, who before the 2019 season rebuilt their pitching philosophy from the ground up and made themselves a competitive team virtually overnight. While they haven’t quite become a super team just yet, their newfound ability to develop elite pitching with regularity alone has made them at least interesting squad ever since.
While they’ve done an excellent job with their young pitching core, they took on a different challenge when they signed veteran reliever Sean Doolittle to a one year, $1.5 million deal in the offseason. Doolittle, entering his age-34 season, was coming off of the worst year of his career, when he pitched to a 5.87 ERA/8.28 FIP in 7.2 innings of work. Sure, that’s not a sample large enough to brand someone as ‘over the hill,’ but a drop in fastball velocity from 93.5 mph to just 90.7 mph didn’t help matters.
Velocity isn’t everything, of course, and Doolittle has never been a flamethrower, but his rising fastball has been his signature pitch throughout his major league career, known to get swings and misses among the game’s best. Because of the velocity dip, that just wasn’t happening, as hitters whiffed on just 18.8% of swings—not great when you throw the pitch over 80% of the time. This dramatically reduced his strikeout rate as well, going from 25.4% in ‘19 (which was already down from the previous year) to a pedestrian 16.7%.
But Doolittle is a Cincinnati Red now, and I would not have already written four paragraphs about the team being great at developing pitching and his seemingly declining skills if I wasn’t somehow foreshadowing his subsequent turnaround, so let’s go ahead and do that!
On the ‘rise’
In the short 2021 season so far, Doolittle’s fastball has ticked back up to an average of 93.4, right back up to his pre-pandemic season average. He has added more spin, too, going from a spin rate of 2187 on the heater in ‘20 to 2251, which would be his highest average spin rate since 2016 if it holds for the whole season.
The added velocity and spin, of course, means better vertical movement. According to a site called Texas Leaguers, which scrapes pitch data from Baseball Savant and produces visuals of how pitches move compared to a pitch of the same velocity if the only force affecting its movement was gravity—in other words, a pitch with 0% spin efficiency, Doolittle has also added an inch of rise to the pitch. So far, albeit in a sample of just 46 pitches at the writing of this article the results have been better, netting Doolittle a 35.7% Whiff%
To put more simply, it’s the difference between this:
Not just the fastball
In addition to the improved fastball, the breaking ball appears to have a different shape as well. Doolittle hasn’t thrown it very much, but the difference is noticeable enough that Baseball Savant has changed its classification from a slider to a curveball. In ‘20, the pitch had over 3.5 inches of vertical movement, meaning that while it did break, it resisted gravity.
Compared to ‘21, the pitch gets just .30 inches of vertical movement, meaning that it falls at about the rate of gravity, even though the velocity is roughly the same. Along with the inch of rise Doolittle added to his fastball, the three added inches of drop to his breaking ball create an addition of four inches of separation between the two pitches.
It appears that there is no pitching challenge the Reds cannot take on. From castaway starters to interchangeable relievers to declining starts, the Reds have become one of those organizations that you don’t want your favorite team trading its pitchers to.
Sean Doolittle is now Cincinnati’s most recent reclamation project. The sample is still very small, but the results are encouraging. In a division that is extremely winnable, the Reds can separate themselves from the pack if they can pitch anywhere near expectations. If they have indeed captured Doolittle’s youth, they could be that much further on their way.
Sorry I couldn’t mix in any Star Wars references.
Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.