WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Sean Doolittle is still at spring training, still in a Washington Nationals uniform and a Washington Nationals hat, still thinking about pitching, about competing. He is no longer thinking about his own four-seam fastball, the pitch that helped him excel through 11 major league seasons in which he was twice an all-star. He’s thinking about everyone else’s best pitches, what makes them effective, how often they can use them, what they’re shaped like, how much they spin, where they fit into various 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 do we get the players the information with an actionable solution, or something that they can really put their finger on that’s digestible?’

“There has to be room where we’re analyzing everything — whether the shape of a pitch has changed, or should we be throwing this pitch less often — but doing it within the context of competing in a baseball game and understanding that we’re not robots.”

In 2024, baseball does not lack for information. Indeed, there may be too much. That fact is why Doolittle is at Nationals camp as a coach five months after he retired as a player. He is here not for ceremony, not because he’s a former World Series winner who wants to cling to the glory days. He’s here to work.

“The information we have is really good, really helpful, really impactful,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “But for a lot of people, it’s a different language. You have to comprehend it, and you have to get out of it what matters to you.

“We’ve got a lot of information and a lot of smart people. We’ve got some smart coaches. But I thought that there was something missing in translation.”

Doolittle is now the translator. His title is pitching strategist. What he’s doing is coaching — not replacing Jim Hickey, the veteran pitching coach, but assisting him in interpreting and presenting information to players. Doolittle brings a curious mind to his new job, and that will serve him and the Nats well. But it’s also true that a message delivered by Doolittle — someone who appeared in 463 major league games, who recorded 112 saves, who understands the pressure of standing on a mound — is different than a message delivered by an analytics expert who spends his time in a cubicle.

“He has instant credibility, right?” said Hickey, entering his fourth season as the Nationals pitching coach. “He’s obviously very relatable in terms of age and experience to the guys. He’s the perfect conduit, and he can certainly relate to everything that they’re going through.”

That last part is important. For the most part, modern baseball players want all the information that’s available to them. What they also want is a reminder that they’re not just the product of those numbers — the spin rate on their curveball or the lateral run on their slider. They’re human beings.

“The context is really important,” Doolittle said. “You’ve got to remember that things could be skewed a little bit because you threw three times in four days or you had a cross-country flight. …

“But a big part of the strategy is making sure the players understand, really, who they are and what their strengths are and then kind of building a program from that. I’m not coming in and saying, ‘Hey, if you could just throw this five miles an hour harder …,’ because that’s not realistic.”

The Nationals, for years, have argued that they have a beefed-up and competitive analytics department. Doolittle’s arrival — in the dugout, at workouts, with the team throughout the season — emphasizes that the club wants to make sure that department’s work is digestible for everyone.

“There seems to be a bigger focus on it this season,” veteran starter Patrick Corbin said. “We had the information. But with ‘Doo’ now, we’re just trying to find the best way to relate it to us. It’s worked really well so far.”

Doolittle believes he’s of the perfect era to serve as a bridge between front office analysts and players because his career bridged the era from scouting reports based on opinions — informed opinions, but still — to hardcore numbers. He said he started diving into information about his pitches around 2017, the year he was traded from Oakland to Washington. But that was also well after his 2012 debut.

“I’m able to speak both of those languages,” he said. “And I kind of feel like, with the experience I have in the game — having a background in old-school pitching philosophies but also understanding the new school as well — I can meet players where they’re at. I can take the same concept and phrase it in multiple different ways to help get the message across depending on who’s hearing it.”

This is a process that is very much in-progress, and Doolittle said to this point he is learning more than he’s teaching. “Coaching is an art,” he said, and he has spent part of spring training watching Hickey wait for the right moment to approach a particular pitcher to discuss a particular subject.

But what’s clear already is that this is not a part-time job. Doolittle gets to the ballpark before 6 a.m. with the rest of the coaching staff. He roams the fields, sometimes with a binder of information. He is going over tape and sifting through reams of information. He sits next to Hickey in the dugout during spring training games, and they review each inning together while the Nats hit. There’s nothing ceremonial about it.

When Rizzo pitched the job to Doolittle last September — just as Doolittle was succumbing to the injuries that would force his retirement as he was turning 37 — he made clear there had to be a commitment on Doolittle’s part. What surprised Doolittle is how quickly he wanted to commit.

“I had always planned on taking some time off after I got done [playing] and then figuring out what I wanted to do,” he said. “But I think the way my career ended — with an injury — changed my perspective on that, because I realized that I still love the game and wanted to be around it. I was just like: There’s still more I want to do in the game.”

When he took the job, the Nats told Doolittle he didn’t have to join the club on road trips. He’s already rethinking that. Speaking in the Florida sun, he thought about the calendar ahead: the opening series in Cincinnati, which he wouldn’t miss. A subsequent West Coast swing.

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

His playing career has been over for less than a year, and it ended in a way he didn’t like. He is still learning about his new career, which is off to an active start. Miss an opportunity to help these pitchers? He smiled and said, “I only have one gear.”



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