OAKLAND – Add another chapter to the compelling narrative of Sean Doolittle’s baseball career.
The lefty reliever, who made the transition from first baseman to pitcher less than three years ago, agreed to terms on a new five-year contract with the Oakland A’s on Friday. The deal kicks in this season and extends through 2018, and it broaches somewhat uncharted territory for a young reliever given the length of guaranteed years. Financial terms weren’t immediately available, but the club also holds options for 2019 and 2020.
Doolittle, 27, spent part of his childhood in the Bay Area, and he and his younger brother, Ryan, grew up going to A’s games. He said he’s thrilled that he’ll be wearing an A’s uniform for the long term.
“Every time I come out for stretch I can see where we used to sit when I was a kid,” Doolittle said. “It was my first exposure to baseball of any kind. The way it came full circle is cool enough. Now, to have that security and know I’ll be wearing green and gold for several more years, it's really exciting.”
It’s rare for major league teams to grant such long-term deals to relievers, particularly ones with as short a track record as Doolittle. He’s accumulated just 1.122 years of service time, though he was on track to qualify for salary arbitration after this season as a potential “Super Two” player.
Farhan Zaidi, the A’s assistant general manager/director of baseball operations, said the resiliency Doolittle has shown over a windy career path played a part in the team committing to him.
Drafted in 2007 out of the University of Virginia, Doolittle looked like the A’s first baseman of the future before knee injuries derailed his career while in the minors. He made the switch to pitcher – he pitched some at Virginia -- midway through the 2011 season. After an excellent start in 2012, the A’s called him up. By the end of the season, Doolittle was a key late-inning reliever for a team that would go on to win back-to-back American League West titles.
“I think the resiliency he’s shown in his career, that’ s shown us a lot,” Zaidi said. “And then we’ve seen what everybody else has seen the last two years, that he’s been one of the best relievers and setup men in baseball. And I think every team would want to be able to have that guy around as long as possible.”
According to research by mlbtraderumors.com, the only other comparable contract to Doolittle’s in terms of service time, was a four-year $8.025 million contract that the Colorado Rockies gave Manny Corpas when he had just 1.076 years of service time.
The A’s approached Doolittle’s agent, Jason Cook, about a possible extension at the start of spring training. It was a balancing act. The contract needed to be one that Doolittle found financially satisfying, as he’s giving up his arbitration years and potentially his first two years of free agency. And the A’s needed a deal that gave them some cost-certainty over the length of the contract.
Doolittle allowed just two of 32 inherited runners to score last season, a 6.3 percentage that is sixth best in major league history going back to 1974, when the stat was first kept.
“Anyone who gets important outs in the bullpen is important,” Zaidi said. “I actually think the player market, whether free agency or arbitration, is starting to reflect that. We don’t necessarily know what inning he’s gonna be pitching in (in the future). But we know he’s gonna be getting important outs, and in many cases the most important outs of the game for us.”
Is Doolittle the A’s future closer? It’s generally thought that he’s got the stuff to be. He’s currently splitting the role with Luke Gregerson after Jim Johnson struggled in the ninth to start the season. Doolittle certainly has ambitions to close full-time.
“Every guy that’s setting up games has aspirations to be a closer, just like every hitter wants to be in the 3-4 hole,” Doolittle said. “Hopefully at some point it’ll happen. I’m not sure I’ve looked too far ahead to make any predictions, because I love my job right now.”