by Dan Cleary
TABERNACLE, NJ—All the great ones have it. A certain aura born of self-confidence, incredible talent and a tireless worth ethic. It is not brash, cocky or self-promoting, but as Joe Torre calls it, “an inner conceit.” A can-do attitude with the skill-sets to back it up.
Sean Doolittle is a member of that select club.
“High-round draft picks have high expectations and pressure, but Sean had an air about him,’ said Aaron Nieckula, Doolittle’s manager this past season at Class A Kane County (Illinois), the Oakland Athletics’ affiliate in the Midwest League. “He is not cocky, but he is very confident. He has that mentality that he knows that he is good, but he also knows talent will only take you so far, so he is willing to work hard. He is a great kid to work with and very coachable. Guys like him make a manager’s job much easier.”
And playing the game of baseball has come easy to Burlington County resident, who has excelled at every stop in his short, but very storied, baseball career. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound, sweet-swinging lefty first baseman recently wrapped up his first professional season by being named the A’s Most Valuable Player in the Arizona Instructional League.
Doolittle, a supplemental first-round pick, was the 41st player selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft in June after a stellar three-year career at Atlantic Coast Conference power the University of Virginia, where he was an outstanding pitcher and first baseman. The A’s received the pick as compensation for losing lefty All-Star Barry Zito to free agency to the San Francisco Giants.
Doolittle, 21, who was the Gatorade New Jersey High School Player of the Year in 2004 out of Shawnee Regional High School in Medford, hit .233 with 10 doubles, 4 homers, 29 RBI, and 23 runs scored for Kane County after being called up from short-season Vancouver after just 12 games. But he finished the season strong, capped by his performance at the Instructional League.
“It was exciting to get called up to Kane County so soon,” said Doolittle, who signed with the A’s in mid-June for a bonus of $742,500 plus school costs for when he finishes his degree at Virginia, which he plans on doing.
“Kane County is a great place to play. But the season was a rollercoaster ride with ups and downs. It was a great experience for me. The last two weeks of the season I started hitting the ball and it continued to the Instructional League. I tweaked my swing there and I had to make some adjustments, going from an aluminum bat to a wood bat. I did a lot of work trying to use my body more in my swing.
“It was huge to end on a good note,” added Doolittle, the ACC’s Player of the Year in 2006. “I’m really excited about it and I hope it carries over to spring training.”
Doolittle’s work ethic and demeanor really left an impression on Nieckula, a former player in the A’s system.
“The thing that struck me the most about him was his professionalism,” praised Nieckula, who guided the Cougars to a 63-76 overall record in 2007. “He came from a renowned program and he was very well-coached in college. He came in, work hard, and hit the ground running. He has an excellent opportunity to play in the Major Leagues.”
And if he makes the majors with the A’s, he will have to follow their doctrine which was laid out in the bestselling book “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis. Oakland General Manager Billy Beane has been both praised and scorned for us his use of certain statistics, like walks and on-base percentage, when evaluating talent. Lewis chronicled how Beane, on a small-market budget, was able to keep the A’s so competitive year-in-and-year-out.
“I was pleasantly surprised with the way they do things,” said Doolittle. “It was eerily similar to what we did at Virginia, so I really picked it up quick. It is a little different than most people think. They really stress the mental aspect of the game and we did a lot of classroom work on situational hitting at the Instructional League. I think because we did a lot of that at Virginia is why they selected me, so I’m lucky in that regard.”
The multi-talented Doolittle can also pick it at first base. He has a great glove and fine footwork around the bag, which impressed the A’s.
“He has tremendous hand and eye coordination and it is exhibited both on offense and defense,” said Keith Lieppman, Director of Player Development for the A’s. “He has great hands and is J.T. Snow-like playing first base. Has great instincts and they are calling him the “Garbage Man” as he picks up all the errant throws from across the field.
“He has a great work ethic and make-up,” Lieppman added. “He has no major weakness and his power is developing. We feel he will follow a good group of A’s first baseman like (Jason) Giambi, (Nick) Swisher, (Dan) Johnson, and (Daric) Barton.”
Doolittle said he takes as much pride in his defense as he does with his swing.
“I worked very hard on my defense at Virginia and at Kane County. It is something I want to continue to get better at,” said Doolittle. “Defense is something you can contribute every game even when you are not hitting.”
Besides his flawless defense and hitting, Doolittle helped Virginia in a major way whenever he took the hill. The southpaw throws in the high-80s, low 90s. During his magical season in 2006 for the Cavaliers, he went 11-2 with a 2.38 ERA. In 2007, he fashioned an 8-3 ledger with a 2.40 ERA in addition to his .301 batting average and 53 RBI in 59 games.
But according to Lieppman, the A’s see his future as a position player.
“I never saw him as an amateur, so I asked Eric Kubota our Scouting Director why he recommended that move. He feels that Sean was a Major League prospect at either position, but he felt he would have a greater impact as a first baseman. He felt that Sean was one of the best hitters in the entire draft, thus the push toward playing first base.”
Doolittle said he misses pitching, but he is up to the challenge of just playing one position.
“It was an adjustment playing everyday and not pitching,” said Doolittle, who struck out 23 batters in a nine-inning 5-3 win over Kearny in the New Jersey Group 4 high school state final in 2003. “I was used to either taking grounders or warming up pitching. But I’m excited to see what I can do when I focus on just one thing. It is funny. I used to be known as a pitcher who could hit, but now I’m known as a hitter who can pitch. It is good to have as a backup, but I hope I don’t have to use it.”
At Virginia, Doolittle was anything but a backup when it came to pitching. He is the school’s all-time leader in wins with 22 and is fourth in strikeouts with 243 in three seasons. He helped the Cavs and their coach Brian O’Connor reach the NCAA Tournament three years in a row. O’Connor, the 2006 College Baseball Foundation Coach of the Year, is 177-66 in four seasons in Charlottesville and has seen 16 players drafted, including a school record six in June.
“Coach O’Connor and his staff have always recruited heavily in New Jersey. Most Jersey players have a little chip on their shoulder and play hard-nosed baseball and they like that,” said Doolittle. “Virginia was one of two schools that said I could pitch and play the field and that was the main selling point for me. Coach is a great guy and it was a blast playing there.”
One of the teammates Doolittle played with was future All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals. Zimmerman was a senior when Doolittle arrived on campus in the Fall of 2004.
“He was a really big influence on me. Just by the way he played the game, he was a great leader. He set a great example for everyone and he has really helped me out as a player.”
While at Virginia, Doolittle also had the honor and privilege of playing for his country as a member of Team USA for two seasons. The team won the Gold Medal in 2006.
“That was an incredible experience playing for our country. Also, playing with guys like David Price (The No. 1 overall pick in the draft in 2007 by Tampa Bay out of Vanderbilt), Matt Wieters (Baltimore’s No. 1 pick out of Georgia Tech) and Todd Frazier (Fellow Jersey native from Rutgers who was picked by Cincinnati.) really helped step up my game.
“We traveled the world and saw some really cool places, like Cuba,” said Doolittle. “I really enjoyed my time there. They treated us very well even though we were Americans. The fans were great to us.”
It is amazing how Doolittle’s baseball odyssey has taken him all over the world. It all started, however, when he was a toddler. His family lived in Atwater, Calif., just outside the Bay Area. His parents, Rory and Debbie, had season tickets to the A’s during their glory days with the “Bash Brothers”, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.
“I don’t’ remember a lot, but I remember enough that it helped me decide that I loved baseball,” said Doolittle.
Doolittle made a name for himself as a member of the powerful Shawnee baseball program and its coach Brian Anderson. Anderson, who is 120-45 in eight seasons at the helm, has guided the Renegades to seven of the last eight Olympic Conference-Patriot Division titles to go along with the state crown in 2003, Doolittle’s junior season.
“It is no surprise what he did at Virginia and what he continues to do,” said Anderson. “He is No. 1 in almost every category in school (Shawnee) history and was a great player. His performance in the state championship game against Kearny was one of the most remarkable ones I’ve ever seen. Sean just carried us. He can do it all. I really thought he would have been drafted as a pitcher, though.”
Doolittle was selected in 39th-round of the draft in 2004 by Atlanta, but he opted to go to school, a decision he doesn’t regret.
“Once I committed to Virginia, I was definitely going to college and I put the word out early so the scouts would know,” said Doolittle. “I wanted to develop as a player, as a person and I wanted to help turn the program around and I think I did that.”
Doolittle, who also honed his skills at The Hit Doctor Academy in South Jersey, credited his parents for helping him get as far as he has.
He said, “They have been unbelievable influence and have sacrificed so much. I could talk for hours about how much they have meant, driving me up and down the East Coast, paying for private lessons, everything. I might not have realized it at the time, but I’m so thankful.”
Now Doolittle hopes to help out his younger brother, Ryan, a pitcher at Cumberland County College in South Jersey. Ryan, 19, originally went to UNC-Wilmington as a catcher, but injuries derailed his career. Now he is trying to make it as a pitcher.
“We are really competitive with each other, but we always help each other. He was always there to catch for me in the backyard and in the cage. Now, I want to be there for him to help him achieve his goals.”
And what about Sean’s goals for 2008? Well, he hopes to advance up the A’s ladder and make an impression during spring training, earning a spot on Oakland’s advanced Class A team in the California League, the Stockton Ports. But wherever he lands, you can be sure of one thing: Doolittle will do a lot.
# # #