Earlier this month, Sean Doolittle made his major-league debut for the Oakland Athletics. It wasn't an obviously momentous event: The left-hander took the mound with two outs in the top of the fifth, with the A's trailing Texas 5-0. He struck out Nelson Cruz to end the inning, then pitched a perfect sixth, striking out two more Rangers, before yielding to Grant Balfour.
What made Doolittle's low-profile bit of middle-relief work notable is that less than a year ago, he wasn't a pitcher at all. He was an injury-plagued first baseman for the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats. His speedy transformation into a big-league pitcher is great news for him, but it's even better news for Oakland, which found a way to turn a seemingly failed first-round pick into a contributor in the majors.
And Doolittle's not the only such case. Jason Motte, the Cardinals' closer, was an all-star defensive catcher in the minors. Carlos Marmol, the Cubs' closer, started his career as an outfielder and catcher. Rockies closer Rafael Betancourt: shortstop in the Red Sox system. Yankees closer Rafael Soriano: first baseman in the Mariners system. Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen: catcher. Rangers closer Joe Nathan: shortstop.
That's a fifth of all current MLB closers who started their careers as position players—59.5 total career wins above replacement from players who initially appeared to have no chance of making the big leagues.
Relief pitching has always been a refuge for failed starters, guys without the stamina or the pitch variety to survive multiple turns through the lineup. Now, some smart teams have figured out that there's a whole other pool of failed players out there who might be capable of making big-league hitters swing and miss. All one needs is a good pitch or two—as long as one of them has some speed on it.
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The Cardinals organization has a specific system for identifying conversion candidates, according to John Vuch, the farm director. Exactly what St. Louis looks for, Vuch wouldn't say. It's all about finding value in ostensibly worthless pieces. "Once you release a player, you give up any value in the asset," Vuch said. So the Cardinals try everything: "Say you've got a corner infielder who can't hit enough to stay there. Can we try moving him to catcher? Can he pitch? Has he ever thrown a knuckleball?"
The result is a minor-league system stocked with converts. Carlos Martinez, a top starting-pitching prospect, used to be a shortstop in the Dominican Republic. Former infielder Yunier Castillo, former catcher Robert Stock, and former first baseman/catcher Fernando Baez are all pitching in the low minors. Double-A closer Casey Mulligan, who was headed for a big-league bullpen spot before he needed Tommy John surgery, used to play third base. Recent Cardinals prospects Luke Gregerson and David Carpenter converted, and now both of them are in other National League bullpens. And of course there's Motte.
There have always been some position players making the switch to pitching. Seven-time all-star Bob Lemon converted, as did fellow seven-time all-star Dave Stieb. Longtime Cardinals starter Bob Forsch did, too.
But what's happening now is different. Those hitters-turned-pitchers were do-everything athletic phenoms, who could have gone either way and simply chose to pitch. (A couple of those thrive in the bigs now: the Nationals' Edwin Jackson and the Pirates' James McDonald.) The new pitching converts, though, are middling or otherwise limited players who benefit from an era of extreme pitcher specialization. The pitching mound—or specifically, the bullpen—chooses them.
Vuch said the Cardinals' player development team gathers and explores lots of possible converts. When the player's time to try conversion comes—when team brass realizes that he'll likely never make the big leagues as a hitter—his minor-league coaches ask him to come to the ballpark early one day and throw off the mound. They wait behind the plate with radar guns.
If he's at 85 or 86 miles per hour, as many strong-armed position players are, the Cardinals don't bother putting him through the conversion process. If he's at 89 or 90, there's something there. "Your hope," Vuch said, "is that he can throw a near-average fastball." Those who survive that initial test get a season to prove themselves in extended spring training and A ball.
Jason Motte was in the low 90s the first time he took the mound. Motte was an excellent defensive catcher in the Cardinals' system, but he hurt his hand in 2005 and struggled at the plate early in 2006. Both Vuch and Motte said that catchers tend to make the best converted pitchers, for obvious reasons. They've already spent so much time learning about pitching from the other side of the plate.
Mark Riggins, then the Cardinals' minor-league pitching coordinator, led the gang that told Motte he should try converting. Motte said MLB scouts had told his coach at Iona the same thing, but the coach feared that he'd screw Motte's arm up by putting him on the mound.
Scouts despise specialization, said John Manuel, the editor-in-chief of Baseball America. They want hitters with strong arms to hit and pitch while they're in high school and in college, if possible. It makes the players easier to evaluate and keeps both skill sets from atrophying.
Scouts especially hate college relievers, because their workload doesn't resemble anything one might see in pro ball. After a phase—Manuel said it lasted from 2002 to 2007—when college closers were all the rage in the first round, teams have become warier of them. Royce Ring, Chad Cordero, Bill Bray, Craig Hansen, Taylor Tankersley, David Aardsma, Ryan Wagner, Daniel Moskos, Casey Weathers, and Eddie Kunz all went in the first round and disappointed.
Today, Manuel said, gaudy velocity is the only thing that makes scouts sit up (whether they're evaluating starters or relievers). South Carolina closer Matt Price pitched brilliantly for two straight national-championship teams and nearly for a third, but because his fastball sits in the low 90s, he was only a seventh-round pick earlier this month. The Gamecocks tried Price as a starter earlier this year to make him more attractive to scouts. But after five starts they returned him to the pen for continuity's sake.
Motte had great arm strength, even in college, but he hadn't pitched since he was 12 years old. "But I just wanted to be given a chance," Motte said. He gave in, and the Cardinals sent him to extended spring training, where he threw in a few bullpen sessions and games. (Motte said the atmosphere wasn't quite like closing. "I don't want to say extended spring training wasn't game-like, but there were usually, like, two people in the stands, some guy's girlfriend and his parents who came down for the week.") Soon he was pitching in short-season A ball in State College, Pa. "I got it up to 92-93, but I had no idea how to pitch," he said. "Guys who are in the big leagues with me now, Mitchell Boggs, Kyle McClellan, they said, ‘Man, you look terrible.' I had no drive, no push with my legs."
Vuch said the organization likes working with converted position players because they don't have bad mechanics built up already. "It's a little like molding fresh clay," he said. "They have the natural mechanics and arm strength, and you give them a very simple delivery."
When Doolittle started pitching professionally, he wasn't entirely fresh clay. He had pitched at the University of Virginia, primarily as a starter, and compiled 243 strikeouts in 222 innings. But he played first base, too, where he hit .312/.423/.482 in 833 plate appearances.
So Oakland drafted him in the first round in 2007 and fast-tracked him as a hitter. He tore up high-A ball in 2008, posting a punchy .305/.385/.560 line as a 21-year-old before getting promoted to Double-A. When the 2009 season began, Doolittle was playing first for Triple-A Sacramento. He was only 22.
Then, a month into the season, he tore his patella tendon and sat out the rest of the year. In 2010, he tore the same tendon during his rehab. He had another surgery, and missed another season. In 2011, he was days away from rejoining Sacramento—after a two-year layoff—and he hurt a tendon in his right wrist while swinging.
"The wrist rehab was not going well, so I started long-tossing and pitching work, mostly just to keep me sane," Doolittle said. Late in the 2011 season, his right wrist still ached. He hadn't played in a game since early 2009. He would probably need surgery, the team said. So he asked Oakland for a position change, to keep him in baseball. "I was drained mentally," Doolittle said. "I had lost a lot of my passion for the game."
Asking for a transfer to the pitcher's mound is unusual. "Position players very rarely approach us," Vuch said. "It'd be an admission that they failed." David Carpenter (a career .206/.265/.286 hitter) complained about his switch while he was in the Cardinals' farm system. Shortly after his conversion, Vuch recalled, Carpenter's parents bumped into his minor-league manager and gave him the cold shoulder. He's pitched 181 minor-league innings since, with a 3.02 ERA and 9.6 strikeouts per nine. In 54.2 innings of relief work in the bigs, he has a 4.45 ERA and 9.1 strikeouts per nine. "I'm not sure his parents are so mad anymore," Vuch said.
Four-time all-star Troy Percival wasn't so reluctant. He campaigned for a switch to pitching. The Angels had picked Percival in the sixth round in 1990, as a catcher from UC Riverside, but he barely got off the bench on his short-season team. Frank Reberger and Bob Clear, two of Percival's minor-league coaches, suggested he try pitching. "They nicknamed me 'Nolan,'" Percival said. "I saw the writing on the wall."
Percival's pitching experience consisted of two games in high school. And Joe Maddon, who was then the Angels' roving minor-league hitting instructor, assured Percival that he could teach him how to hit. But Percival didn't believe he had a shot at the big leagues without converting. He agitated for the chance to throw a bullpen session for organizational higher-ups. After a few days, big-league pitching coach Marcel Lachemann agreed to come watch him at 6 a.m.
As Percival tells it, he hit 95 on the radar gun. He asked Lachemann for his opinion. Lachemann didn't want to give it. Percival insisted. "He said, 'All right, turn in your gear.'"
Percival looked inexperienced on the mound. His bent leg would kick nearly to his neck, and his upper body would whip violently through his follow-through. But maybe his wild delivery ended up helping him: After the fact, Percival said, Joe Maddon told him that the Angels had rushed him through the minors because they feared that, with his pitching motion, he didn't have many innings in him.
"They were afraid I'd break down quickly, so they wanted to get something out of me," Percival said. (He did break down eventually, with injuries to his knees, hips, and back. Pitching, he said, was a greater strain on his legs than catching ever was.)
In Sean Doolittle's case, the A's still had a lot riding on him when he asked to convert. He was on the 40-man roster, and he hadn't yet turned 25. So, by the end of August 2011, Doolittle was a pitcher.
Doolittle said the A's were "very hands-on" when they converted him. He spent almost every day last summer with Garvin Alston, the A's pitching and rehab coordinator, working on mechanics. Gil Patterson, the A's minor-league pitching coordinator, followed him closely too.
"I wish I could say I expected it to go well, but I didn't," Doolittle said. He sensed that he had a lot of arm strength left, but would his command ever return? So many things can go wrong between the minors and the big leagues, after all.
Former Mets farmhand Joe Hietpas knows what can happen. He reluctantly converted and stumbled along the way. He was a catcher from 2001 to 2006, even appearing, via defensive subsitution, in the ninth inning of one big-league game in 2004. The next year, he struggled at the plate in Double- and Triple-A, and he hit even worse in 2006.
But one afternoon during that season with the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, Brian Bannister aborted a rehab start and left the team short of pitching. Hietpas took the mound for an inning. He pitched well. The Virginian-Pilot wrote, "He was consistently in the 90s." One pitch touched 93. Hietpas said he came out of the game only because the pitching coach thought he would hurt himself.
That offseason, Mets player development honcho Tony Bernazard (best known for challenging a Mets prospect to a fight while shirtless in 2009) gave Hietpas a call and told him he should come to spring training as a pitcher. He declined. He hadn't pitched since he was a teenager, and besides, he had always caught well. He figured he had a shot at becoming an MLB backup for a few years. But when Bernazard brought it up again, during spring training in 2007, Hietpas was more receptive. "I was curious to give it a shot," he said. "It didn't seem like I had much to lose."
He had some success in high-A ball—a 1.15 WHIP in 43.2 relief innings—but he didn't develop effective secondary pitches and struck out only 22 batters. He pitched in Double-A the next year and struggled, allowing 13 home runs and 31 walks, while striking out only 48 batters, in 65.1 innings. His velocity declined the more he pitched. He retired after 2008 and graduated from law school back in May.
"Some guys are really good off the hill," Hietpas said, "and I wasn't."
Vuch said the Cardinals have a program by which they build converted position players' velocity, but most of it depends on how good a player's throwing mechanics are in the first place.
Motte's average fastball during the 2012 season sits at 96.8 miles per hour, sixth best in baseball among pitchers who've thrown at least 10 innings. (The Rangers' Alexi Ogando, who used to be an outfielder in Oakland's system, is seventh.) He said his velocity developed without too much assistance from the coaches. "I improved by watching other guys, seeing the way people do things, learning how to use my legs, learning how to drive," he said. God gave him his fastball, Motte likes to say.
The non-fastball stuff? That came from Russ Springer, longtime middle reliever. Springer taught Motte how to throw a cutter, which has been his best pitch in 2012, according to Fangraphs. But Motte said he still doesn't exactly know how to throw offspeed pitches.
Doolittle said Motte is baseball's future: "Yeah, he's a max-effort guy, but he fits with the way things are specialized now."
Doolittle himself isn't far behind. Like Motte's, his offspeed stuff "is a bit of a work in progress." But he's doing fine without it. He's throwing harder than he ever did before. Pitch/FX says his average fastball clocks in at 94 miles per hour; Doolittle said he threw 89-91 in college. He doesn't know why his arm has gotten stronger, although he suspects the years of first-baseman workouts helped. He weighed 180 pounds in college and now weighs 210.
Less than a year after his conversion, Doolittle is now a major-league pitcher, a reclamation project that suggests that maybe there are other productive careers hidden in the arms of unproductive prospects.
"Looking back, it's funny, ironic," Doolittle said. "When I signed my contract, Billy Beane said, ‘You come with a built-in insurance plan. If something happens down the road we have a back-up plan.'" Doolittle told me that Beane "was obviously kidding," that he was laughing when he said it. But we all watched Moneyball. Beane's laughs mean a lot of things. As of this writing, Doolittle has 17 strikeouts and two walks in 8.2 innings in the majors.