- Associated Press - Saturday, February 24, 2018

JUPITER, Fla. (AP) - Comfortably installed as a closer for the first spring in his career, Washington Nationals lefty Sean Doolittle is taking advantage of role security to expand his pitching arsenal.

During the early weeks of spring, Doolittle, with the help of new pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, is experiencing encouraging results from the slider he’s been cultivating.

“It’s sill in the research and development phase, but I’m excited about it,” Doolittle said. “I’ve had some really good days working with Lilliquist on it.”

Of hurlers who threw more than 20 pitches last season, only four pitchers relied on their fastball more than Doolittle, throwing the four-seamer 87.7 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs.

The 31-year-old Doolittle actually increased the use of his change-up last season and toyed with a slider that he threw only 5.2 percent of the time. He’s always been inconsistent with the slider.

“I had (a feel for) it for a few weeks or months maybe at different points in my career, but I never really felt like I got past being a work in progress,” Doolittle said.

Doolittle believes that the structural makeup of the muscles in his wrist - the natural tightness that gives so much life on to fastball - hampers his ability to generate optimal spin on his breaking pitches.

Lilliquist is helping to counteract the condition by tweaking Doolittle’s grip, allowing the lefty to use more of fastball grip on his slider.

Doolittle’s slider in early bullpen sessions impressed Washington manager Dave Martinez.

“It’s actually really good,” Martinez said. “He says he’s going to try to develop it as he gets in the games a little bit and throw it a little bit more to get the the feel of it.”

Washington acquired Doolittle and Ryan Madson from Oakland last July in a trade for Blake Treinen and two minors leaguers to solidify what had been a problematic back end of the bullpen.

Doolittle only tallied three saves prior to the trade but notched 21 the remainder of the way - his most since saving 22 games for the 2014 Athletics. That was Doolittle’s lone All-Star season, but even then he didn’t enter the spring as Oakland’s closer.

In previous springs, Doolittle competed for either a roster spot or for a defined bullpen role, forcing him to push himself to perform optimally when he entered Cactus League games.

Expending so much effort in February and March could explain why he’s been so inconsistent once the season starts. In his career Doolittle has lost more games in April or the final days of March than in any other month, and his 3.61 ERA during that time period is lower than only his June ERA.

He usually finds a groove in May - a month in which he’s never lost and owns a 1.21 ERA that’s at least 1.50 runs lower than any other month.

“Not being able to maybe work on things in spring training, once I got to the season, maybe there were kind of maybe some issues - whether it was mechanically or with my repertoire - that I hadn’t really ironed out yet,” Doolittle said. “I think that leads to inconsistencies. I’m hoping that being able to take this approach now, I can work on different things so that come April, come opening day, I’ve touched everything a couple times - I’ve worked on it.”

Doolittle has yet to debut his slider in Grapefruit League play and Martinez hasn’t announced when he’ll get his first opportunity. Closers don’t need to build up innings in spring like starters do, so their workload is generally lighter.

“I’m just looking to be more of a complete pitcher and trying to be more efficient,” Doolittle said. “The better my changeup and slider are the more effective my fastball will be.”

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