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Viewpoint | Information officer Sean Doolittle is the ‘perfect conduit’ for the Nats

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Sean Doolittle is still in spring training, still in a Washington Nationals uniform and a Washington Nationals cap, still thinking about pitching, still thinking about competing. He no longer thinks about his own four-seam fastball, the pitch that helped him excel during 11 seasons in the major leagues during which he was a two-time All-Star. He thinks about everyone else’s best pitches, what makes them effective, how often they can use them, what they look like, how well they spin, where they fit into different arsenals.

“We actually have a great data analytics team in place,” Doolittle said, leaning on a fence next to the bullpen mounds here. “But the question has always been, ‘How can we provide players with the information with an actionable solution, or something that they can really put their finger on and that’s digestible?’

“There needs to be a space where we analyze everything – has the shape of a pitch changed or should we throw that pitch less often – but doing it in the context of competing in a baseball game and understanding that we are not robots.

In 2024, baseball has no shortage of information. In fact, there may be too many. This is why Doolittle is at the Nationals camp as a coach five months later he retired as a player. He’s not here for a ceremony, nor because he’s a former World Series winner who wants to hang on to his glory days. He is here to work.

“The information we have is really good, really useful and really impactful,” said general manager Mike Rizzo. “But for a lot of people, it’s a different language. You have to understand it, and you have to take from it what matters to you.

“We have a lot of information and a lot of smart people. We have smart coaches. But I thought something was missing in the translation.

Doolittle is now the translator. His title is that of strategist. What he does is coach – he doesn’t replace Jim Hickey, the veteran pitching coach, but he helps him interpret and present information to the players. Doolittle brings an inquisitive mind to his new job, and it will serve him and the Nats well. But it is also true that the message delivered by Doolittle – someone who has appeared in 463 major league games, who has recorded 112 saves, who understands the pressure of standing on a mound – is different from the message delivered by an expert in analysis who spends his time in a cubicle.

“He has instant credibility, doesn’t he?” Hickey said, entering his fourth season as the Nationals’ pitching coach. “He’s obviously very comparable in age and experience to the guys. He’s the perfect go-between and he can definitely relate to everything they’re going through.

This last part is important. For the most part, modern baseball players want all the information they can get. What they also want is to be reminded that they are not just the product of these numbers: the spin speed of their curveball or the sideways travel of their slider. They are human beings.

“Context is really important,” Doolittle said. “You have to remember that things can be a little skewed because you threw three times in four days or had a cross-country flight. …

“But a lot of the strategy is making sure the players really understand who they are and what their strengths are, and then building a program from that. I’m not coming to you and saying, “Hey, if you could just run this five mile per hour course harder…” because that’s not realistic.

The Nationals, for years, have maintained that they have a strengthened and competitive analytics department. Doolittle’s arrival – in the dugout, at practice, with the team throughout the season – underlines that the club wants to make sure the work of this department is digestible for everyone.

“There seems to be a greater focus on that this season,” veteran starter Patrick Corbin said. “We had the information. But with “Doo” now, we’re just trying to figure out the best way to relate it to us. This has worked great so far.

Doolittle believes he belongs in the perfect era to serve as a bridge between front office analysts and players, as his career bridged the era of opinion-based scouting reports – informed opinions, but still – at hardcore numbers. He said he started delving into information about his presentations around 2017, the year he was traded from Oakland to Washington. But it was also good after its 2012 debut.

“I am able to speak both languages,” he said. “And I kind of feel like with the experience that I have in the game – having a background in old school pitching philosophies but also also understanding the new school – I can meet players where they are. I can take the same concept and phrase it in several different ways to help get the message across depending on who is hearing it.

It’s an ongoing process, and Doolittle said at this point he’s learning more than he’s teaching. “Coaching is an art,” he said, and he spent part of spring training watching Hickey wait for the right moment to approach a particular pitcher to discuss a particular topic.

But what is already clear is that this is not a part-time job. Doolittle arrives at the stadium before 6 a.m. with the rest of the coaching staff. He goes through the fields, sometimes with a binder of information. He goes through records and sifts through tons of information. He sits next to Hickey in the dugout during spring training games, and they go over each inning together while the Nats hit. There’s nothing ceremonial about it.

When Rizzo offered Doolittle the job last September – just as Doolittle was succumbing to injuries that would force him to retire at age 37 – he made it clear that there had to be a commitment from the leaves Doolittle. What surprised Doolittle was how quickly he wanted to get involved.

“I always planned to take some time off after I finished (playing) and then figure out what I wanted to do,” he said. “But I think the way my career ended – with an injury – changed my perspective on it, because I realized I still love the game and wanted to be in it. I was just like : There’s still more I want to do in the game.”

When he accepted the job, the Nats told Doolittle he was not required to join the club on road trips. He is already rethinking this. Speaking in sunny Florida, he thought about the upcoming schedule: the opening series in Cincinnati, which he wouldn’t miss. A later swing to the West Coast.

“I mean, I could write reports remotely and Zoom into meetings,” he said. “I don’t know. There’s so much to say about us being there.

His playing career ended less than a year ago and it ended in a way he didn’t like. He is still learning more about his new career, which is actively taking off. Are you missing an opportunity to help these pitchers? He smiled and said, “I only have one piece of equipment. »

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