A month into his job as closer for the Athletics, Sean Doolittle already possesses all the props and traits of the archetypal ninth-inning finisher. He has the de rigueur facial hair, the headbanger entrance music (Metallica’s "For Whom the Bell Tolls"), the snarling fastball, and yes, all the OCD superstitions to drive a man insane. Before every game, Doolittle puts on his headphones at his locker and listens to the same four rap songs on his phone. “And they have to be in the exact same order,” he said. “It’s irrational, and it’s unhealthy—just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my superstitions. That’s what this gig has driven me to: Insanity.”
The story of Sean Doolittle—a former hitting prospect turned pitcher—was amazing enough before the season started. A 2007 first round draft pick who had a few up-and-down seasons as a first baseman and outfielder, he missed all but one game of the 2010 and '11 seasons after knee surgeries, then turned to pitching in 2012, reached the majors that season and last year bloomed into one of the best relievers in the game. But what Doolittle, who officially took over as Oakland’s closer in late May, has accomplished this season, and over the last two months in particular, has been astonishing.
On April 26, Doolittle was shelled for four runs in a game against the Astros. He hasn’t given up a run since. In fact, over 23 games and 25 1/3 innings since, Doolittle has allowed just six hits, walked one batter and struck out 39. His scoreless streak is the longest active one in the American League and the fourth longest scoreless streak by an A’s reliever, and he has retired 37 of the last 38 batters he’s faced and 63 of the last 67. On the year, he’s struck out 53 batters and walked one. He is, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the first pitcher since at least 1900 to strike out 45 batters before issuing his second walk.
Doolittle is the best reliever in one of the best bullpens in baseball, a marvelous melting pot of compelling and eccentric personalities. There’s Luke Gregerson, the righthander who deferred admission to law school after he was drafted in 2006 and is now having arguably the best season of his career. There’s Dan Otero, a 29-year-old Duke grad and crossword puzzle whiz who was claimed by Oakland from the Yankees a year ago and has emerged as one of the best relievers in the game (2.12 ERA in 46 2/3 innings). There’s Jeff Francis, a mild-mannered Canadian and former first-round pick, and Fernando Abad, the Zubaz-wearing Dominican, who has posted a 2.32 ERA in 31 innings.
“It’s a tight knit bunch, and it makes it fun come to work every day,” Doolittle said. “With these guys, you can imagine that the conversations we have in the bullpen are over the place. Francis is working on his citizenship, so recently we’ve been working on his United States factoids, and all of us have been second guessing our knowledge. The other night we went into a huge debate over who has the majority in Congress. It always turns out that Francis, the Canadian, knows more about American history than any of us.”
Even with the ugly struggles of Jim Johnson, the Athletics' bullpen ranks third in the AL in ERA behind Seattle and Boston and has been a big reason why Oakland is the best team in baseball. No reliever in the game has had a more stunning season than Doolittle, and no reliever is more deserving to be in the All-Star Game next month.
And so with less than one week left in All-Star voting, we present our all-underrated team of players who, along with Doolittle, deserve the same spotlight as stars like Derek Jeter and Miguel Cabrera and should be considered for selection to their first Midsummer Classic.
For your consideration:
Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs
The competition is fierce here, but the 24-year-old leads all NL first basemen in OPS (.934), home runs (18) and walks (48). There’s a reason why he's starting to draw comparisons to Joey Votto.
Brian Dozier, 2B, Twins
A man of many talents, Dozier is on pace to become the Twins’ first-ever 30-30 player. Alhough he made the position switch from shortstop just two years ago, he’s also played good defense at second.
Erick Aybar, SS, Angels
Healthy again, the 30-year-old is playing elite defense at short and putting up good offensive numbers (.284/.324/.425) for the Angels.
Kyle Seager, 3B, Mariners
Seager is probably the most underrated player in the game and is the MVP on a Mariners team making a real run at the postseason. The 26-year-old been proving that yes, you can hit at Safeco Field: Seager is batting .341 at home with 11 of his 12 home runs coming in Seattle.
Michael Brantley, OF, Indians
The player to be named later in the 2008 trade that sent CC Sabathia to Milwaukee, Brantley has quietly bloomed into one of the more valuable and versatile outfielders in the game. Hitting .325/.394/.524 with 12 home runs and nine stolen bases, he also plays excellent defense in leftfield. Don’t be surprised if he earns MVP votes at season’s end.
Michael Morse, OF, Giants
It was one of the best signings of the winter: San Francisco's one-year, $6 million deal for an outfielder who was miserable last season but is now hitting .286/.339/.517 and still has 13 home runs on the year despite not hitting one since June 5.
Marcell Ozuna, OF, Marlins
On Thursday, Ozuna ripped his 13th home run of the season off the Phillies' Cole Hamels and is now hitting .262/.310/.447 with 45 RBIs. That's not bad for a guy who started the year on the minor league disabled list with a fractured wrist.
Derek Norris, C, OAK
Part of the Athletics' three-headed catching monster, Norris is hitting .302/.405/.509 with eight home runs, is having a breakout season at age 25 and probably deserves even more playing time in Oakland.
Todd Frazier, DH, CIN
Frazier took a step back in 2013 after a promising rookie year but is now having a serious breakout season in Cincinnati, leading NL third basemen in home runs (17) and all major league third baseman in OPS (.865).
Corey Kluber, SP, CLE