When Oakland closer Sean Doolittle suffered a tear in his pitching shoulder in January, the bad news was softened because Billy Beane had acquired reliever Tyler Clippard from Washington just days earlier. When asked who would fill in for Doo until he was healthy, the A’s pointed toward Clippard but left the door open for other candidates. In my mind, there were no other options, Clippard was the guy. In fact, I think he’s a better closer than Doolittle and would love to see him remain in that capacity even when Doolittle returns. There are several factors involved in this line of thinking, because normally an All-Star closer like Doolittle shouldn’t have to fight for his job.
But another A’s All-Star closer, Ryan Cook, has lost not only the closer role but a spot in the bullpen altogether. He will now begin the year at AAA-Nashville as he strives to get his command back. You might recall what led to Cook’s appearance at the Midsummer Classic in Kansas City: closer Grant Balfour had a bad WEEK, and so Beane re-installed former All-Star Brian Fuentes. Fuentes’ idea of putting out a fire was to pour gasoline on it, so Cookie got his chance and grabbed it with both hands. But after a while Cook lost his closer’s role to … wait for it … Grant Balfour, who then set an Oakland record of consecutive saves and became an All-Star himself.
Sean Doolittle was a sandwich pick of the A’s out of Virginia in 2007, but not as a pitcher, as most of you know. A fantastic college first baseman, he even played for Team USA and looked to be a great infield prospect. But as injuries curtailed his hitting, he turned to pitching, which he did at UVA in patches.
He then shot through the A’s farm system. I asked him last year about that meteoric rise, and he told me that he was overwhelmed by how well he pitched and how rapidly he was promoted. He pitched in only 26 innings at three levels before making his big league debut for the A’s on June 5th, 2012. He came in throwing gas – not one fastball in that game against the Rangers was clocked under 94 mph. He quickly became Balfour’s main setup man. When Balfour was allowed to walk away as a free agent at the end of the 2013 season, it looked as though Doolittle and Luke Gregerson would be the setup men for the new $10 million All-Star closer, Jim Johnson. Johnson lost on Opening Night and was booed right out of town. He just couldn’t deal with the derision. By May 20, Doolittle was named full-time closer. He earned a spot in last year’s All-Star Game, in which he struck out two of the three men he faced.
Doolittle is also a fan favorite, a social media master, commercial star, and is one of the few players Beane has signed to a multi-year deal. If you include team options, Doo is under contract until 2021, when he’ll be 34. This means he’s definitely in the long-term plans. Yet plans change – you might remember when Beane proclaimed Jemile Weeks as “untradeable.” And because of Doolittle’s injury, the closer plans have changed.
I’m not worried about it, because I think Tyler Clippard is better than Doolittle. Clippard, an All-Star himself, has been one of the most durable and effective relief pitchers in all of baseball the last five years. I could write about stranding inherited runners and strikeouts per nine innings, etc., and both Doolittle and Clippard will come out with shining numbers. We can look at Clippard’s time as Nats closer in 2012 when he had 32 saves, but that was only on a temporary basis as he returned to a setup role these last two years. For me, it comes down to trust, and sometimes that’s a visceral, gut reaction, regardless of what Bill James says.
I remember the look on Doolittle’s face as he stared in from the bullpen between pitches during the Wild Card Game: he looked (to me) like his eyes were going to burst through his head and he was about to have a heart attack. I said to my friend, “Uh oh – Doolittle looks spooked – he’s not ready for this.” He came in, blew the save, and the game went on. In his defense, he wasn’t the only pitcher to blow a save that night. But when we needed him, he failed, as did others. He would be the first to tell you same thing, I believe, because he’s a stand-up guy. In contrast, Clippard seems like a wild man who couldn’t be phased by anything. When Washington was in the playoffs the last two seasons and the bright lights were shining, Clippard was a bulldog with a 1.50 ERA in six postseason games.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think Doo is fantastic for the franchise both on and off the field. I think he will have a brilliant career and I really like the guy. I guess the bad taste still lingers in my mouth about the Collapse in Kansas City. I think if Clippard is doing well when Doolittle gets back, let Doo pitch the eighth and keep things rolling. Clippard is a one-year Billy Beane Special, anyway. Doolittle will be back to closing in 2016 by the latest, unless he gets hurt, or the GM deals him, which happens to most A’s players.