Inside the Numbers: Is Sean Doolittle being used right?

washington nationalsSean Doolittle has been overused. That much is obvious in reference to the Washington Nationals closer.

A question that I had involved an at first cursory dive into his 2019 stats.

Doolittle is second in the NL in appearances by a closer, with 54, but has 28 saves, six wins and six blown saves to show for it.

Assuming that at least a couple of the wins were also blown saves, that seems like quite a few games in which Doolittle was sent to the mound by Nats manager Davey Martinez in situations that maybe you don’t need to send your closer to the mound.

In fact, three of his wins were also blown saves, meaning you’re looking at 17 games in which Doolittle pitched that we need to do some accounting for.

Right off the top, there were three games – a 6-3 loss to Pittsburgh on April 12, an 8-3 loss to San Diego on April 27, and a 4-3 loss to Atlanta on June 23 – in which Doolittle entered in the top of the ninth inning of a tie game, pitched an inning, the Nats failed to score, and he was removed when the game went to extras.

Nothing wrong with that usage.

Which means I’m now looking at 14 games. For reasons I’m not entirely sure about, Doolittle didn’t get saves in what to me look like save situations in wins over the New York Mets (12-9, on April 7) and San Francisco Giants (9-6, on April 17). Doolittle didn’t give up a run in either outing, both of which he finished, in games the Nats won by three runs.

I’ll have to admit not knowing that a rule must have been tweaked regarding the awarding of saves as the only explanation in each of those cases.

Again, though, here, nothing wrong with the usage.

Anyway, so, remove those three, and we’re down to 11 games that I still have questions about in terms of the usage of Doolittle.

Of that subset, nine lead to questions about usage.

  • April 4: a day after getting the win with a scoreless ninth ahead of a walkoff hit that beat Philadelphia, Doolittle went an inning in a 4-0 win over the Mets.
  • April 21: Doolittle was summoned to get the last out in a 5-0 win at Miami.
  • May 9: Doolittle went an inning and a third to close out a 6-0 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. He entered in the eighth with a 5-0 lead. Defense: hadn’t pitched since May 4.
  • May 15: Doolittle pitched an inning to close out a 5-1 win over the Mets. Defense: hadn’t pitched since May 11. Note: the next night, he gave up two runs on four hits to record a shaky save in a 7-6 win over the Mets.
  • June 14: Doolittle pitched a scoreless inning to close out a 7-3 win over Arizona. He hadn’t pitched since June 8, so this one may have been justified as, he needs work.
  • June 27: A night after getting the save in a 7-5 Nats win over the Marlins, Doolittle came in with an 8-4 lead in the ninth at Miami to close that one out.
  • July 12: an inning to close out a 4-0 win at Philadelphia. The defense: he hadn’t pitched since July 7.
  • July 29: Doolittle was inserted with a 6-2 lead in the ninth in a win over Atlanta. Hadn’t pitched since July 24.
  • 5: Doolittle pitched a scoreless ninth to close out a 4-0 win at San Francisco.

It’s worth noting that Doolittle’s two most recent bad outings – two runs in posting a save in a 7-6 win over Cincinnati on Aug. 12, and the four-run blown save in Saturday’s 15-14 extra-inning loss to Milwaukee – came a day after he had pitched scoreless ninths in each instance.

MLB closers don’t have anywhere near the workloads today that closers of the 1970s and 1980s used to put in.

Doolittle, for instance, is at 52.0 innings pitched to this point in 2019, and he’s never thrown more than 69.0 innings in a season in his career, and has only passed the 60-inning mark twice in eight seasons.

For comparison, Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter averaged 107.0 innings per season over his 12-year career, which spanned from 1976-1988; Mike Marshall won the Cy Young as the Dodgers closer in 1974, pitching in 106 games, finishing 83 of them, going 15-12 with 21 saves in 208.1 innings.

The difference, I’m assuming here, is that you have a lot more depth in lineups than you did in the ‘70s and ‘80s, particularly depth in terms of power, plus guys are going deeper in counts today than at any point in the evolution of baseball.

There are only so many bullets in the arms. You have to be judicious with how they’re used.

Martinez still has some things to learn in that respect.

Column by Chris Graham

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