The Stockton Ports recently completed the first half of their California League schedule. As is often the case, the Cal League has been filled with impressive offensive performances this season. The Ports had their own offensive power threats, such as Miles Head, A.J. Kirby-Jones and Dusty Robinson, but the team has struggled to contain the opposition's power. The Ports' team HR/9 sits at a ghastly 0.94. On the flip side, they have kept the base-runners to a minimum, allowing the second lowest WHIP in the league (1.33), second fewest walks allowed (165), and the fifth fewest hits (642).
Since suffering a 16 game freefall in May, the Ports' pitching staff has continually improved. Standouts during this resurgence have included starter Blake Treinen, closer Zach Thornton, and two pitchers added from the Low-A Burlington Bees' Opening Day roster: starter Sean Murphy and reliever Ryan Doolittle. Murphy and Doolittle have breezed through opposing lineups and are bucking the trend of statistical regression in the California League by keeping the opposing hitters off the bases.
For most of his professional career, Doolittle has been most well-known for being the younger brother of A's 2007 supplemental first-round pick and first-baseman-turned-pitcher Sean Doolittle. Ryan was selected in the 26th round of the 2008 MLB draft by the A's, but, like his brother, he had seen his rise through the minor league stalled over the past few seasons because of injuries.
Ryan has a similar baseball backstory to his brother Sean. Like Sean, Ryan was a two-way player in high school, leading Senaca High School his senior season by plating 41 runs, slicing 20 doubles, and clobbering seven homers as the Golden Eagle's starting catcher. On the mound, he would post consecutive 6-1 records at Senaca and opted to attend to the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where he was recruited mostly as a pitcher. Doolittle would receive minimal playing time at Wilmington, however, compiling only four plate appearances and pitching a cumulative 19.2 innings. Opponents hit .398 off of Doolittle.
Unable to find his niche with the Diamond Hawks, Doolittle returned to his native New Jersey and suited up for Cumberland College, where he would flourish for the junior college squad. He posted a 0.68 ERA while dominating for a 9.8 K/BB and a 13.3 K/9. Those numbers would attract Oakland to take Doolittle in the 2008 draft, one year after they selected his brother.
Doolittle began his professional career with the A's Rookie League club in Arizona. He appeared in 14 games, including seven starts, and he allowed 10 walks, tallied 36 strikeouts, and permitted two homers in 46.2 innings. Since his professional debut season in 2008, Doolittle has been mostly a reliever, having made only three more starts in the subsequent seasons.
"It's just a different mindset," Doolittle said of relieving rather than starting.
"Coming in for a start I think you have to know hitters a little better, to understand the situations and what not. When you're relieving you have to come in like a bulldog, trying to get as many outs as quickly as you can, whereas a starter you're trying to go the distance. It's a little different, but as long as I'm healthy, it doesn't matter to me which one I'm doing."
Health has been Doolittle's biggest hurdle since turning pro. While gearing up to pitch in 2009, Doolittle would strain his UCL (ulnar collateral ligament). He would miss the entire 2009 season, and would spend some of 2010 rehabilitating as well, only recording 40.1 innings pitched between short-season Vancouver and Low-A Kane County. However, Doolittle would show promise in his limited 2010 action, allowing only two walks compared to 37 strikeouts.
Doolittle entered 2011 with renewed optimism. He started the seaon off strong with High-A Stockton, notching California League Pitcher of the Week honors for the week of April 18 and boasting a 24/3 K/BB ratio in 20.1 innings pitched for the Ports. Doolittle's season came to an abrupt halt in May, however, after he yet again aggravated his UCL, which cost him most of the rest of the season [he would return in time to make a handful of appearances for the A's Rookie League team in August].
This off-season, Doolittle had a singular focus: to prepare for a healthy season.
"It was really big," Doolittle said of his offseason regimen. "My whole goal coming into this season was to stay healthy, so I had a lot of work with my shoulder, elbow and legs, just trying to get stronger. Just making sure that when I got here this season that I'd stay healthy. And so far so good."
Doolittle began the season with Low-A Burlington and quickly stormed through the Midwest League, throwing 9.2 innings, while striking out 12 and walking none. Doolittle has continued to shine since a promotion to High-A, striking out 31 and walking only three in 24.1 innings. His combined ERA is 1.32.
"Pretty much everything [is working]," Doolittle said.
"My fastball's been good and I've hit my spots with that. Same with my slider and changeup and I've mixed those in pretty well. And I think it's just being able to throw strikes with all three pitches that has worked out for me. So I'm pretty happy with all three."
In addition to his stellar K:BB totals, Doolittle has limited opposing batters to a .180 average and has a 1.42 groundout-to-flyout ratio. Having already made 23 appearances in 2012, Doolittle is one away from his career season high.
As the season enters it's final half, Doolittle's goals are simple.
"First and foremost I'd like to remain healthy and just keep pitching the way I am," Doolittle said. "I'd like to move up and what not, but as long as I can stay healthy and just keep doing what I'm doing, then I'll be happy with that."
As kids, the tightly-knit Doolittle brothers attended games at the Oakland Coliseum as fans. Now Ryan hopes to someday join his brother Sean in the big leagues.
"I pretty much talk to him every day," Ryan said. "Ever since he's gotten [to Oakland] I've talked to him. I try not to ask him too many questions just ‘How do you feel?' ‘What's working?' ‘What's it like up there?' Just things like that. Just pretty much normal brother talk."
"It's been awesome to coach them," Ports manager Webster Garrison said of the Doolittle brothers, who have both suited up for Stockton this season.
"Especially two good guys and the way they are, just two good people on and off the field. But not only did I coach Sean as a pitcher, but as a hitter in 2008 and he was an outstanding position player. It's just been a pleasure to coach both guys, and they've been successful on both ends of the spectrum. And Ryan is basically having a great year with us as well. Every time he goes out there he's putting up zeros and he's given us a great opportunity to win late in games."
Ryan Doolittle hasn't been alone in posting zeros for the Ports of late. Sean Murphy, an imposing 6'6" right hander, has shredded his competition throughout the 2012 campaign for both Burlington and Stockton.
A 33rd round pick of the A's in 2010, Murphy pitched collegiately at the Division III powerhouse, Keystone College. He impressed scouts with his well-built frame and polished arsenal. His final season at Keystone, Murphy posted a 6-3 record with a 3.22 ERA, 56 strikeouts and 20 walks in 64.1 innings pitched.
After signing with the A's, Murphy pitched exclusively out of the bullpen for Oakland's AZL club and posted a 4.00 K:BB ratio with a 1.10 WHIP in 21 innings pitched. He would be assigned to Low-A Burlington to start the 2011 season. Murphy would make 15 appearances [six starts] for the Bees and he recorded 34 strikeouts, but would be stricken by poor defense, surrendering 57 hits in 42.2 innings pitched. Murphy would also make a spot start for Stockton, earning a win by going six innings and allowing only six hits and one run with one walk and five strike-outs.
Like Doolittle, Murphy began the 2012 season on the Burlington staff. In eight starts, he surrendered only 11 earned runs. He was still stuck with four losses due to faulty run support. He was the Midwest League's Pitcher of the Week" for the week of April 30. After posting a 1.97 ERA and striking out 52 in 50.1 innings, Murphy would be promoted to Stockton. He made an instant splash with the Ports, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning in his 2012 Cal League debut. His defense would ultimately crumbled around him, sticking Murphy with five unearned runs.
"Right around the 4th inning I realized I hadn't walked anybody or given up a hit," Murphy said of his Cal League debut. "So I just tried to bear down and stick to my gameplan. Just focus on one pitch at a time and control my body, my delivery and keep everything fluent."
Things have been fluent for Murphy in the California League ever since. He has been dominating in his five starts, racking up a 34:5 K:BB ratio, a 9.56 K/9, and a 0.83 WHIP in his 32 innings pitched thus far. His ERA is a solid 2.81. Murphy has struck out eight or more in three of his starts and especially dazzled in an eight-inning performance against the Cal League's top offense in High Desert.
"Not really," Murphy said when asked if there were noticeable differences between the Midwest and Cal Leagues.
"I just feel that if you keep the ball down and execute your pitches then you'll be fine. I haven't really noticed a difference, except maybe hitters [In the California League] are more fastball oriented where they sit on one pitch than in Burlington."
With an entire second half remaining, Murphy promises for more memorable performances as the season progresses.
"Honestly, everything has been working for me," Murphy said.
"Everything's been clicking. It's mainly been just being confident with my pitches, but I'd say my fastball location, as far as keeping it down in the zone, keeping it away from hitters, and going in when I need to go in. Working up, down, in and out. Working my changeup off my fastball is definitely a big key since I'm pitching in the California League. And throwing my curveball for strikes when or if I need to throw it for strikes.
"I just need to expand on my sliders, my swing-and-miss pitch, and to attack late in the count… I would say I need to improve on my late innings. Sixth, seventh, eighth innings, just to get over that little hump right there. I really want to focus and control my mind and body towards executing pitches late in games to give my team to best chance to win."
Murphy's last start of the second half was his worst of the season, as he allowed six runs in five innings, although he still struck-out six and walked only two. Ports' manager Webster Garrison has been very pleased overall with Murphy's efforts for Stockton.
"Overall he's had a great year, but [his last start] wasn't one of his better nights," Garrison said. "He left some balls out over the plate and had a tough time locating his off-speed pitches for strikes. Some guys hit him well, but overall he came in there and battled. It could've been more runs than that, he pitched out of a couple of jams. And his overall season has been outstanding and I think that start was the one tough outing he's had all year."