There are many remarkable things about Oakland All-Star relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, the orange-bearded former first baseman now closing games for the best team in baseball. But the four most remarkable — his impeccable control, his deception on the four-seamer, his ability to throw high in the zone and his dependence on the fastball — all have a lot to do with his hands.
Doolittle is 1-3 with 14 saves in 17 opportunities and a 2.89 ERA in 42 games for the A’s, who own the majors’ best record (59-36) at the All-Star break. In 43 2/3 innings, he’s walked just two batters and struck out 63. That’s walking just 1.3 percent of the batters he’s faced, while striking out 37.6 percent. Subtracting one from the other, Doolittle leads all of baseball this season. He’s third best in that stat since baseball began.
He’s always had good control, but this year, he’s pushing it to record-breaking territory. It turns out, much of his improvement has come from where he puts his hands during his delivery.
"My hands are key," Doolittle told FanGraphs before a game in early July. "Once my hands come up too much under my chin, that throws the timing of everything off. The hand break has to happen down, right around the belt, which gives my arm time to get down behind me, gives my front side time to get up. The rhythm on that keeps my stride length in check."
Apparently that stride length is very important to the deception on his fastball.
"If my stride length gets too long, I lose the deception on my fastball — I work on it every day when I throw," said the closer, mimicking an upward finish on his fastball with the word deception.
It might be a stretch to say that he can thank his hands for his ability to command to one particular part of the zone — high and hard — because it’s about his foot placement, but it’s still about hands in a way: His ability to hit the catcher’s target.
Oakland catcher John Jaso felt that Doolittle’s extreme first-base side spot on the rubber kept his pitcher "on a line to my glove on the outside corner." Doolittle agreed.
"I feel like my strength has always been glove-side fastballs, and this makes it easier to execute now that it’s right in front of me," Doolittle said. "Just gotta throw it straight."
Doolittle had a rough patch last season. In early June of 2013, he allowed 10 runs in five appearances. Introspection after that period led to changes in his delivery, and also in his location.
"We looked at a chart of balls that were put in play and almost every single hard contact was mid-thigh and down," Doolittle said. "I’d be coming back in and I’d be like, that was a good pitch, that was a fastball at the knees. I had to get it in my head that I was a guy that had to keep the ball up in the zone."
"I don’t have great hand control," said Doolittle about his lack of a great changeup or breaking pitch.
What he’s had to do is find two grips that he can throw exactly like the fastball that produce different movements.
Before this season, Doolittle used to throw the knuckle slider, which is pictured on the above left. He moved to the grip on the right this season because he didn’t have that hand control to manipulate the pitch … and because of what he saw from pitchers around him like teammate Jesse Chavez.
"I talked to a bunch of guys that threw cutters in their side work, but they didn’t throw it in the game necessarily, the only reason they threw it was to help their slider, Doolittle said. "That helped the development of my slider. When I’m throwing on flat ground, that’s what I do. When I take it to the mound, I feel if I repeat the same delivery, then I’ll have the slope of the mound and it gets the depth."
It’s amazing how the slight alteration of the placement of the seams in his hand gives him different break on what he calls a slider.
As for the changeup, he’s worked on it a while … and has thrown a grand total of five this season. But he’s upbeat about the pitch ("We can use it!"), citing encouragement from his catchers after bullpen sessions and conversations with his coaches.
In general, he feels like it’s useful situationally.
"Steal a strike early, or if I get in a long at-bat and maybe I’ve elevated a couple times and he’s not biting, I’ll go back to that," Doolittle said.
Doolittle is finding ground-breaking success throwing his deceptive fastball high and hard and often. Turns out, he even credits some of that success to the hitter’s hands.
"Having been a hitter, everything that you do, drill-wise, mentally, is about your hands going down to the ball," Doolittle said. "It’s about dropping the barrel of the bat on the ball. You have to have more hand control and more body control to get on top of the ball up here."
The motion of his hands as he breaks from his rotation, the stiff wrist action as he lets the fastball fly, the lack of hand control that makes breaking stuff difficult for him, the line between him and his catcher’s target high on the outside corner and the way the hitter’s hands are trained to drop the barrel on the ball — in many different ways, hands are key to Sean Doolittle’s unique success.