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Sean Doolittle and the 48/1 K/BB ratio

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Sean Doolittle
Sean Doolittle
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Over at Athletics Nation, Lev Facher makes the case that Oakland Athletics reliever Sean Doolittle is a logical choice for the American League All-Star Team. Facher points out that Doolittle hasn't given up a run since April 26th. Other key points.

Doolittle also isn't a player whose value is difficult to see — there are instances when players put up off-the-charts numbers in way difficult to discern via the naked eye. This isn't one of them. Doolittle is amazing theater every time he takes the mound. He's huge, bearded, and throws a high-90s fastball the vast majority of the time. His game plan is dependable and barely wavers: fastball low, fastball higher, fastball high, strikeout. He's perfect material for a national broadcast on Fox.

Reasonable points I think; certainly Doolittle's numbers are excellent this year: 2.12 ERA, amazing 1.12 FIP, and a 48/1 K/BB ratio through 34 innings.

A reader recently asked me about how Doolittle was viewed when he was an amateur. He was one of the most successful players in the history of the University of Virginia, a star as both a hitter and pitcher. His best year on the mound was his sophomore season in 2006, when he went 11-2, 2.38 with a 108/21 K/BB in 91 innings. Keep in mind that was before the change in metal bats reduced offensive production across the board in college ball. He was named ACC Player of the Year, having also hit .324/.454/.458.

He continued to put up good numbers as a pitcher in his draft season of 2007, posting a 2.40 ERA with a 69/21 K/BB in 82 innings. Scouts felt his stuff was down, however, reducing his appeal as a pitcher. He had a decent fastball and a changeup, but his breaking ball went backwards. Sabermetrically this was reflected in a lower strikeout ratio, and by this point scouts preferred him as a position player.

He hit .301/.420/.465 with a 46/21 K/BB in 226 at-bats, drawing praise as a pure hitter with exceptional plate discipline and a fine glove at first base. He was drafted in the supplemental first round, 41st overall. As a pitcher, he would have been drafted much later, probably in the teen rounds, a generic college lefty who could throw strikes but didn't have the hot stuff to project pro dominance. As a hitter, he projected as an OBP machine with moderate power and a strong glove.

As you likely know, Doolittle had a solid season as a hitter in 2008 before being struck down by knee and wrist injuries that robbed him of most of 2009 and all of 2010. His career in jeopardy, he moved back to pitching in 2011 and rebuilt his career so quickly that he spent most of '12 in the big leagues and has been in the bullpen ever since. In 150 major league innings, he has a 168/25 K/BB and just 113 hits allowed.

So how strange is this? Many hitter-to-pitcher conversions never really work out, but Doolittle had advantages over the typical "this guy can't hit, make him a pitcher" case. He had a background as a highly-successful pitcher against top competition in college. Most conversion guys need time to figure out how to command their stuff, but Doolittle already knew how to do that: indeed, command was his best attribute for the Cavaliers. He was always statistically successful on the mound, even when scouts got down on his stuff and decided he was a better bet as a hitter.

Doolittle is up to 97 MPH these days, averaging 94, and has developed a better breaking ball. If he'd shown the kind of stuff in college that he shows now, he would have been a first-day draft pick as a pitcher. He commands everything with precision, and given his three-year layoff from pitching, his arm has less mileage than the typical college product.  As long as he avoids further health issues, he should have a long and successful career.