A glimpse of Sean Doolittle on the mound seems trivial to some onlookers unaware of the numerous travails he's had to overcome. His mid-90s fastball and sharp slider have given him notoriety within the Oakland A's organization as a seemingly typical prospect with a high ceiling and potential.
But a quick investigation into the 25-year-old's past uncovers a much more complicated background than most pitching prospects. Through it all, Doolittle has preserved to chase that major league dream, a dream that seems more realistic today than at any time since 2009.
The highly touted prospect was a first round selection as a position player by Oakland and the 41st player taken overall in 2007 after a storied career as a first-baseman and pitcher at the University of Virginia. It was Doolittle's second time through the draft. He bypassed an opportunity to enter the catacombs of Atlanta's minor league system in 2004 as a 39th round selection.
Doolittle, hailed as a potential first baseman of the future for Oakland, moved through short-season Vancouver and Low-A Kane County to complete his brief 2007 campaign. He began the following season with the High-A Stockton Ports in what was his first, and eventually final, full season as a position player. He dazzled with the Ports, hitting .305/.385/.560 in 86 contests while blasting 18 offerings over fences of miscellaneous California League parks and recording 25 doubles as well. His contributions helped propel Stockton to the post-season and they would eventually win the Cal League title.
Doolittle would be absent from Stockton's celebration, however, following a promotion to Double-A Midland. He struggled some with the Rockhounds, but still managed to compile an average of .286 for the entirety of the 2008 season. He would make up for that somewhat disappointing performance with Midland by starring in the Arizona Fall League following the 2008 regular season.
Afterward, the then-22 year old prepared for what was expected to be a campaign that would result in a possible elevation to the major leagues. The plan he had originally formulated would unravel, however, as the proclaimed phenom was forced to grapple with adversity.
After a strong stint with the big league team in major league spring training camp, Doolittle was sent to Sacramento to begin his 2009 season. He got off to a strong start with the River Cats, smacking nine extra-base hits and an 811 OPS, in 28 games. Unfortunately, his season ended after that 28th game thanks to a debilitating knee ailment suffered in early May. The injury at first appeared to be one that he would be able to overcome without surgery, but after several rehab attempts failed to correct the injury, Doolittle had surgery. That single surgery turned into numerous surgeries and they would inevitably consume the remainder of 2009 and would result in his absence for the entire 2010 campaign.
Finally repaired and rejuvenated, Doolittle geared for a comeback in 2011. The organization was rightfully cautious, opting to have Doolittle remain in extended spring training to ensure a successful return. But mere days before his intended return to Sacramento, he tore a tendon in his wrist. After a meeting with Oakland executives in August, it was decided that Doolittle's career as a position player was complete. He would convert to a pitcher.
Doolittle was no stranger to pitching. A starting pitcher for the Virginia Cavaliers in 2006, Doolittle demolished the ACC by sporting an 11-2 record, the record for wins in a single season in UVA's history, while amassing a 2.38 ERA with 90.2 IP, 10.72 K/9, and a 0.94 WHIP. He was a finalist for the Brooks Wallace award (Player of the Year), first team all-ACC and an all-American. Despite his experience as a starter, Doolittle was put into a relief role by the A's this season in order to make his path to the major leagues a shorter one.
"It's definitely different," Doolittle said. "As a starter you know when you're going to throw. You have a greater regimen and routine. As a reliever, you only have an idea of the situations in which you'll throw.
"The biggest thing is being able to flick the switch in the bullpen from sitting there for six innings and then all of a sudden the phone rings, they call your name, and you have to be ready to go. Whereas a starter may take his time, go through warmups without being rushed. I enjoy the fact that when they call your name in the pen and the adrenaline kicks then you have to get loose."
Doolittle made his professional pitching debut last season with a one-inning appearance for the A's Rookie League team. After pitching during the A's fall Instructional League, Doolittle, a member of the A's 40-man roster, would continue his conversion to pitching during spring training at the A's big league camp.
"It was a blast. I would've preferred to have stuck around a little longer, but it was an incredible experience for me to be able to learn from those guys," Doolittle said.
"Being so brand new as a pitcher and so raw, having the opportunity to watch those guys perform and prepare was huge for me."
Doolittle entered the regular season focusing on his task before him, with no regrets towards his injury-riddled past as a position player.
"I don't miss batting right now," Doolittle said. "I still have so much to work on and stuff that I'm learning with my pitches. I'm attempting to fine-tune my pitching and I feel occupied enough with that right now."
Pitching for the Stockton Ports, Doolittle has been nothing short of spectacular. The California League's hitter-friendly reputation hasn't fazed Doolittle, who has relinquished a lone earned run in 8.1 IP while recording a staggering 17 strikeouts to date.
"My best pitch right now would be my fastball," Doolittle said.
"I feel like I have fantastic command of it and can throw it to both sides of the plate. In a situation where I need to throw a strike or execute a pitch I'd refer to my fastball."
Doolittle knows what he needs to improve on in order to succeed against major-league caliber opposition.
"My slider needs improvement. It's been inconsistent so far. Some days it's been good and some days it's been awful," Doolittle said.
"[A's minor league pitching coordinator] Gil Patterson is here [last] week and I'm hoping to work with him to improve the pitch. I feel as though if I can master that pitch then I can be successful the rest of this season and down the road."
The numerous setbacks Doolittle experienced throughout his career have been strenuous and taxing physiologically and physically. However, Doolittle has adopted an optimistic outlook and the notion that the injuries served a sense of purpose. His enjoyment regarding his renewed opportunity is nothing short of admirable as he's embraced his newly acquired leadership as one of the older players on the Stockton roster.
"Being one of the youngest guys on the team back in 2008 and now becoming a veteran [is different]," Doolittle said.
"Having that seniority has taken some getting used to, but it's been a fantastic experience."