Doolittle Showing Power, Versatility In First Full Season
STOCKTON, Calif.—After a pedestrian debut in 2007, Sean Doolittle's power is coming to fruition. He is hitting .344/.408/.640 with 10 home runs and 34 RBIs through 35 games in his first full professional season.
Oakland drafted him 41st overall last June and Doolittle split time between Vancouver and Kane County. He spent much of the year hitting sixth but has moved to the third spot this year with the Ports.
"Hitting in the middle of the order has been a little of an adjustment," he said. "Now hitting in the No. 3 spot every day, the pitchers here aren't afraid to throw their offspeed pitches for strikes in a hitter's count. A lot of times I am seeing changeups in that count or might even see breaking balls. That's been a pretty big mental adjustment for me so far."
Positioned for Success
One big change for Doolittle in 2008 has been that besides playing first, he has also made three starts in right field. The seeds for this experiment were sown during spring training.
"I was apprehensive at first because I was in my first spring training and thought that learning a new position might be tough," Doolittle said. "But once I settled in and knew that they wanted to utilize my versatility, I focused on getting comfortable. I really like it out there. It's a nice change of pace from playing first base and I kind of enjoy it."
Doolittle played outfield as a freshman at Virginia and during two summers with Team USA, spending a majority of his time in right, so it's not exactly a new position.
"You make a lot more reactionary moves out there because the ball comes to you so much faster than it does at first," he said. "You rely a lot more on your instincts and trust yourself after doing so many reps in practice. Outfield is all about judging fly balls off the bat, knowing the count, where to stand, how to play different hitters, when to throw and hit the cutoff man and things like that. It wasn't totally new to me but I almost had to relearn it."
The shift was Athletics farm director Keith Lieppman's idea, and his rationale was simple.
"It was a combination of two things," Lieppman said. "We had two really good players at the same position and wanted Doolittle and (Chris) Carter to both play first but didn't want to bring one guy up as just a DH and the other as just a first baseman."
Lieppman also made the move to help make Doolittle more versatile.
"We know that Sean is an outstanding first baseman who is going to be a Gold Glover," he said. "But if he can also play the outfield and do some other things like (Nick) Swisher did, then that would be great."
Even though Doolittle has made just three starts in right thus far, Lieppman has been impressed with what he has seen.
"He's got good hands, has good instincts on the field and is athletic," he said. "His arm his fine because he was a pitcher in college. He has to learn how to throw from that distance, which should come through long toss. But I think he can do that with no problem."
Last fall, Doolittle was among the Oakland prospects selected to participate in the instructional league. And it was an opportunity he clearly took advantage of.
"They felt like I had a chance to make some significant strides if I went down there," he said. "It's starting to look like that all paid off."
Some prospects might view the instructional league as a bad thing, but for Doolittle it was all positive.
"It's set up where you get out of it what you put into it," he said. "After a long season, you go there for about five weeks after just a week off. You play in the Arizona heat and that can take a toll on you but once you're out there, you make the most of it and suck it up.
"You want to work hard and if you do that, then it will pay off in the future. Overall, it was a positive."
Doolittle's solid performance didn't go unnoticed.
"He was MVP of our instructional league," Lieppman said. "We give that award not just to the best guy but the player who ground it out and had the best attitude. This guy just doesn't ever blink. He just keeps grinding and I think that showed in the instructional league. He really made the most of that."
And after struggling a bit at Kane County last summer, that extra work in the fall gave Doolittle a much-needed shot in the arm.
"It definitely gave me confidence," he said. "I know that I was hitting the ball really hard, really consistently and for a lot of power there. After having some ups and downs in Kane County, going to instructional league and consistently performing for those five weeks was a big confidence boost."
However, Doolittle wasn't finished. After returning from Arizona, he got into the weight room. One benefit from that is that his power numbers are about where they should be in 2008, even in the hitter-friendly California League.
"I'd like to think that this is what people are expecting of me to do," Doolittle said. "I know this is what I expected of myself after the adjustments I made in the instructional league. I spent the offseason putting on weight and gaining strength.
That was the plan, to come out and prove to people who weren't sure if the power was ever going to come. A first baseman in the middle of the order is supposed to be producing like this and that's what has happened so far."
Lieppman also respects how much work Doolittle put in during the offseason.
"He's been outstanding," he said. "He's met every challenge. He got bigger and stronger in the offseason and really conditioned himself well."
Steve Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.