José Luis Villegas jvillegas@sacbee.com Sean Doolittle has great confidence in his fastball, and the A's want him to develop more belief in his off-speed pitches.

A's take slow approach with fastballer Doolittle

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2013 - 8:19 am

PHOENIX – Sean Doolittle's sharp rise from Class A to the major leagues last season showed a knack for fast learning from the first baseman-turned-relief pitcher. But apparently that doesn't apply to everything.

As a last-chance offseason getaway before ramping up preparation for spring training, Doolittle and fellow A's relievers Jerry Blevins and Ryan Cook went on vacation to the Central American nation of Belize. They stayed on the beach, took water taxis into the city, snorkeled and visited Mayan ruins.

Doolittle and Cook also took a day to go fishing on the open water, with Doolittle's brother, Ryan, a pitching prospect in the A's organization.

Ryan Doolittle, Cook said, "kept pulling fish out of the water like it was going out of style."

And Sean?

"He was the worst," Cook said. "I think we gave him credit for 1 1/2 fish. We threw one of them back."

Doolittle didn't even take credit for the half, saying, "I only caught one."

So it doesn't quite stand up to the true fish story that was Doolittle's 2012 season, when the left-hander, whose position-playing career was derailed by injuries, emerged as one of the key members of the Oakland bullpen after joining the team in June.

Doolittle, who started the year at Advanced-A Stockton, went 2-1 with a 3.04 ERA in 44 games for the A's, striking out 60 hitters and walking 11 in 47 1/3 innings. Among American League relievers with at least 40 innings pitched, his 5.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranked fifth.

A's manager Bob Melvin calls Doolittle "one of the great stories in baseball last year."

Now the question is, what Doolittle will do for an encore? To start, the A's are monitoring his workload closely this spring after Doolittle threw 72 1/3 innings across all levels in his first season of professional pitching. He has pitched just once in their first nine Cactus League games.

"We want to monitor and make sure, because there's no track record with him as far as innings," Melvin said. "But our training staff does a great job of monitoring these guys. To this point, knock wood, he's handled everything."

Doolittle said he was "surprisingly nervous" before his first spring outing – one scoreless inning last Friday. He was happy with his fastball location and, perhaps more pertinently, mixed in three changeups and two sliders.

Doolittle blazed through the A's system last season largely on the strength of his fastball, which he threw on average at 93.6 mph in the majors, according to the analytical website FanGraphs.

It could be quite a weapon coming from the left side, and Doolittle relied on it heavily, throwing it on 86.8 percent of his pitches.

"That was what I would use to get ahead in the count, and then once I got ahead, I would use it to expand, elevate, try to get them to chase, bust them in," Doolittle said. "It was just the pitch I had the most confidence in."

Developing that confidence in the off-speed pitches is an emphasis this spring. He has tightened the break on the curveball he threw last season to make it more of a slider.

Pitching coach Curt Young said the hope is it can be more of a swing-and-miss pitch for Doolittle, particularly against left-handed hitters.

"But I mean, I'm still going to attack with the fastball," Doolittle said. "I'm still going to move it around the strike zone like I did last year. I don't think it's any secret that's still my bread and butter."

Doolittle said he didn't reflect much over the winter on his whirlwind rookie year. Cook and Blevins said the A's surprising playoff run didn't really come up in Belize either. Now that Doolittle is back in camp, though, the differences for him aren't so easily cast off.

"(Last spring), I was trying to prove to people that I could be a good pitcher, not just a good pitcher for a guy that used to be a hitter," he said. "It's hard to believe that one year ago I was here, and then, first cuts, I was out of here. To think about it like that is crazy."

Call The Bee's Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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