After enduring two knee surgeries, tearing his right wrist and missing three straight seasons -- all when he was one step from the Major Leagues -- the last thing you might expect to hear from former Oakland Athletics' first-round draftee Sean Doolittle is the first that comes out of his mouth -- he feels fortunate.
"I have a whole new energy for the game now," Doolittle said from Phoenix, the site of A's Spring Training, "because I really feel like I lucked out and got a second chance. I'm having a lot of fun. I feel like this is my first big league camp like it was back in 2009."
But seriously, why so happy?
Here's the reason: Instead of a 21-year-old first baseman who collected 22 homers and 91 RBIs between two levels in 2008 is a 25-year-old relief pitcher with a new path to the Majors in 2012. And his left arm, capable of heat in the mid- to high-90s, is very healthy.
Doolittle, whom Oakland selected 41st overall in 2007, is no stranger to the mound. As a collegian at the University of Virginia, he recorded a 2.23 ERA in 56 career appearances (while batting .312 in 181 games as a hitter). He discussed with MiLB.com his recent position switch and the frustrations he's overcome along the way.
MiLB.com: In retrospect, what was toughest about the obstacles you faced?
Doolittle: The first knee injury was one thing. but having the success I had in big league camp in 2009 and then suffering it 30 games in, knowing that I was going to have a shot to get called up at some point that year, that was tough.
MiLB:: After the second surgery and missing all of 2010, how close were you to reemerging in '11?
Doolittle: I was literally three days away from heading back to [Triple-A] Sacramento last spring and I tore [a tendon in] my wrist [swinging] at a fastball up and away, something that I really thought I could drive to the opposite field. I heard a pop. I felt a pop. Immediately when I did it, I knew I was in trouble.
MiLB.com: And at that point, you were still set on being a position player?
Doolittle: As far as I was concerned, I was going to go back to Sacramento later that week and resume playing first base every day. I love playing day in and day out -- that's been one of the biggest adjustments of pitching so far. But at that point that year, Sacramento had been putting a Band-Aid on the first-base situation. They had been playing guys out of position there, trying to hold it over until I could get healthy. They had done everything but put me back on the plane to Sacramento. I had virtually graduated my rehab assignment [in Arizona], and I was feeling great and optimistic about everything because my knee was coming back really well, and I was starting to swing the bat really well also. I went from a really high to a really low there.
MiLB.com: The suddenness of it all seems cruel, doesn't it?
Doolittle: The timing of the injuries and having three of them, it's been really tough. Hopefully, having three of these things -- I mean, I'm pretty superstitious and things come in threes. Good things come in threes too.
MiLB.com: What was the final straw for you as a first baseman?
Doolittle: One recurring theme throughout all my doctors visits with the wrist was, "We won't know if you need surgery until you swing in a game, until you go after a changeup or get beat by a fastball." They really weren't sure. I went back to the doctor for what was supposed to be my final checkup in early August. By this point, I wasn't healthy enough to take dry swings with a real bat. I was taking dry swings with a fungo bat at about 75 percent [effort] and I wasn't feeling right. They suggested I take off until at least December or January and then start swinging again. Once I calculated all that, I was like, "Wow, I'm not going to get in game action until February in Spring Training. God forbid something goes wrong in Spring Training. Surgery is six to eight months [of recovery] for this particular injury. There's a serious chance I'd miss a fourth straight season." When I added it all up, I really just wanted an opportunity to switch to pitcher.
MiLB.com: How agreeable were the A's?
Doolittle: They were a little hesitant at first. I had had success swinging the bat when I was healthy, so I totally understand why they would balk at the idea. Originally, it was [player development director] Keith Lieppman's idea for me to start long-tossing, because I had a cast on my right arm essentially, up past my right elbow from my hand. Long-tossing was just something for me to do during the day in May, June and July. Looking back on it now, we were getting the wheels turning on our insurance plan. One thing led to another: The wrist wasn't getting better; the arm was.
MiLB.com: When did you realize you could still hack it as a hurler?
Doolittle: I never really had an epiphany. It was more of a snowball effect over time. By the time they called me and said, "You're a pitcher now," I had done so much throwing, so many flat-grounds, so many light bullpen sessions, that over time in my head, I was like, "Man, I can probably do this."
MiLB.com: How has your repertoire been coming along?
Doolittle: I really feel like my fastball is my best pitch. There is some deception there, some late life -- this is obviously coming from my catchers, not me -- and I really feel like I can locate it well to both sides of the plate. And that gives me a real chance to compete no matter how my off-speed is.
MiLB.com: And the off-speed...
Doolittle: The changeup was definitely the first pitch to come back. It came back pretty quick, and it's been good so far in Spring Training. The slider is a work in progress. This past week, we made serious strides with it, so I'm definitely optimistic.
MiLB.com: Sounds like you've covered a lot ground in a short time.
Doolittle: I don't want to sound cheesy or cliché or that I am just "along for the ride," but I'm having a blast. I'm learning a lot.
MiLB.com:: Biggest adjustment so far?
Doolittle: The way I hit the weight room. I have learned a lot from guys just watching how they go about their business every day, seeing what their routines are after they throw, before they throw -- stuff they do to get their body in shape to throw.
MiLB.com: Have any established Oakland hurlers been of particular help?
Doolittle: I've been asking a lot of questions and everyone has been very receptive. I talk to Andrew Carignan a lot about different things, because [like Carignan] they have me pegged as a late-inning reliever. Ultimately down the road, that's what we're shooting for. I talk to Jerry Blevins a lot, because he's a left-hander. Older guys, Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour, observing them has been great.
MiLB.com: How about your younger brother, Ryan Doolittle, another A's Minor League pitcher who has overcome injury?
Doolittle: This was my first offseason as a pitcher, so here I am the older brother -- a year-and-a-half older -- and I'm going to him for advice on stuff to do in the weight room and how my throwing progression should go. We went into slider, changeup grips, all that stuff. So I have actually learned a lot from him. In Instructs and Spring Training, I have put a lot of that to use and I have been able to have success. It's been a lot of fun to share that experience.
MiLB.com: And the potential is there for you both to pitch in the same bullpen.
Doolittle: Neither of us have an idea of where we're going to go, but if that were to happen, that would be really cool.
MiLB.com: Where would you like to begin the season?
Doolittle: I can't even begin to speculate about where I'm going to start. I realize this is such a unique situation that there's really no blueprint for. No matter where I start, whether it's [Class A Advanced] in Stockton or it's Triple-A in Sacramento, I really don't care because I have been through so much. I have spent so much time down here, in the AZL, in extended spring training, just trying to get my body healthy -- and I'm finally healthy. Wherever I go, as far as I am concerned, is a huge step in the right direction.