Most teams don’t sign relievers to five-year extensions. The Oakland A’s are not most teams.
While their closer situation is still in flux, the A’s are locking up one of the relievers looking to replace Jim Johnson in the 9th inning. Oakland inked lefty Sean Doolittle to an extension through the 2018 season Friday that includes team options for 2019 and 2020. Since the deal replaces the current contract he was on for this season, it’s technically a five-year deal. The guaranteed years will carry him through what would have been his arbitration seasons, and the options account for his first two free agent-eligible seasons.
A two-way player at the University of Virginia, Doolittle was drafted 41st overall in the 2007 draft. Starting his professional career as a pretty decent hitter — he hit 22 home runs across two levels in 2008 and carried a career .272/.354/.449 line — injuries forced him back to the mound in 2011. After just 26 innings as a pitcher in the minors, Doolittle was called up and has done nothing but dominate. Since his debut in 2012, he’s struck out 129 in 125 innings, walked just 24 and has a 3.10 ERA (2.56 FIP). The only two Oakland pitchers with a higher Win Probability Added (WPA) last season were Grant Balfour and Bartolo Colon.
With Jim Johnson struggling to start this year, Doolittle and Luke Gregerson have been sharing closing duties based on matchups. A cynic might say that the A’s see Doolittle as the eventual full-time closer, and locking him down into a long-term contract before officially giving him that title might be a way to avoid paying through the nose for him later. While baseball is starting to look at other metrics for relievers, saves still get guys paid in arbitration — just ask Johnson, who’s making $10 million this year after back-to-back 50-save seasons. The A’s don’t usually pony up to keep relievers who get expensive like that (they let Balfour walk, after all), so this is a chance for them to save a bunch of money on a guy who may still be developing as a late-inning reliever.
On the other hand, this is still an odd deal. You just don’t see long-term contracts like this for relievers, and for good reason. In most cases, their season sample sizes are too small to make accurate projections on how they’ll fare in the future. In Doolittle’s case, the A’s are guaranteeing five years to someone who has thrown a grand total of 151 innings as a professional. That’s a significant risk, even if he ends up being the next Craig Kimbrel.