Reliever Sean Doolittle sat in the A’s dugout Friday afternoon one level down from the second-deck Coliseum seats he once occupied as a kid, long before he grew the bushy reddish beard that he habitually stroked while considering the “little bit surreal” step his professional career had taken earlier in the day.
The A’s announced they had agreed to terms with Doolittle on a new five-year deal through the 2018 season that also includes club options for 2019 and 2020. If both options are exercised, the contract could keep Doolittle in an A’s uniform through his 34th birthday. As it is, the A’s locked up a key part of their bullpen who may well be closing games in Oakland before the deal is up.
“It means everything that the organization thinks of you like that, that they want to keep you around and think you can be a part of teams here for years to come,” said Doolittle, 27. “And I think if you factor in the road I took to get here, everything I went through to be able to put on this uniform, it’s really special to know that I’ll be part of this organization for a while.”
Doolittle’s road to the majors – he was drafted by the A’s in 2007 as a first baseman, only to have injuries derail his position-playing career, and converted to pitching in 2011 – is well documented, along with his success upon reaching Oakland in 2012.
Since debuting with the A’s in June of that year, Doolittle has gone 7-6 with a 3.10 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 125 innings while becoming one of manager Bob Melvin’s primary setup men. Doolittle has appeared in 122 games, not including the postseason. His wins above replacement – a metric measuring player value – ranks 10th among all big-league relievers since the beginning of 2012, according to the website FanGraphs, even though Doolittle spent the first two months of that first season in the minors.
Terms of the deal were not released, but its length alone gives an indication of how much the A’s value Doolittle. He and assistant general manager Farhan Zaidi said the A’s approached Doolittle’s camp this spring about a long-term deal shortly after finalizing his 2014 contract. The new deal buys out Doolittle’s arbitration years and could include his first two years of free agency if the A’s pick up the 2019 and 2020 options.
Remaining to be seen is what Doolittle’s role at that time will be. Right now, Doolittle is part of a closer-by-committee system. But while Jim Johnson – who lost the closer job earlier this month – may regain it in the short term, it’s a role some see Doolittle eventually holding.
“That was something I had to look into the future and use the crystal ball a little when I was thinking about some of the stuff we were looking at, the length (of the contract) and everything,” said Doolittle, who has four career saves. “I hope so, just for the simple fact that every guy that sets up games has aspirations to be the closer.
“Hopefully at some point it’ll happen,” he continued. “Now, I’m not trying to look too far ahead or make any predictions or anything like that, because I love my job right now.”
Historically, successful left-handed closers have been rare. Only three of the top 30 pitchers in career saves threw left-handed – probably, Melvin said, because there are more right-handed than left-handed hitters, making it more sensible to have a right-handed pitcher closing games.
Melvin, though, said Doolittle has proven to be “very versatile – he gets righties out and gets lefties out.” In fact, entering Friday night’s game against Houston, Doolittle had held right-handers to a lower OPS (.577) and batting average (.213) than left-handers (.616 and .228, respectively) in his major-league career.
“We don’t necessarily know what inning he’s going to be pitching, and that’s going to continue to be Bob’s department and decision,” said Zaidi, who negotiated the deal. “But we know he’s going to be getting important outs – in many cases the most important outs of the game for us – and that’s not always going to be in the ninth inning.
“It’s more about anybody that you think you can trust to get valuable outs at the end of the game is going to be worth the investment.”
Doolittle, who grew up as an A’s fan, said that after news of the deal broke Friday, he saw a picture circulating on Twitter of him and his brother at a game at the Coliseum in 1990. It now appears he’ll be calling the stadium home for a long time.
“That was my first exposure to baseball of any kind,” Doolittle said. “The way it came full circle was cool enough. And now to have a little security and know I’ll be wearing the green and gold for several more years – it’s really exciting.”