The Boston Red Sox are 20-11 right now, tied with the Rangers and Cardinals for the best record in baseball and sitting alone atop the American League East.
Those who have watched a majority of the team’s games should understand that while the Red Sox might not be able to continue this pace, such a start is also by no means a
fluke. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have returned to form, and Ryan Dempster has pitched admirably as a No. 3 starter. The offense has been above average despite little production from the left side of the infield. And the bullpen is what we thought it was – one of the best relieving units in the game.
Yet in some ways, the team’s hot start makes its poorest performers stand out even more than they did a year ago. Andrew Miller and Joel Hanrahan have faced control problems in the bullpen. Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s defensive ineptitude has become more pronounced thanks to the addition of David Ross. And Will Middlebrooks and Stephen Drew have yet to do much of anything with the bat, although they’ve both performed as above average defenders.
But no pitcher on the staff has disappointed to this point like one Felix Doubront, the 25-year-old left-hander with electric stuff but a maddening inability to turn talent into production.
Let’s take a look at the statistics.
There are several elements of this stat line that should jump out at you. Sticking with traditional stats to start, let’s drop this stunning piece of analysis on you: the 5.67 ERA and 1.70 WHIP are bad. The 5.1 IP per start? Not swell. The 101.4 pitches per those 5.1 IP? Not great either. Doubront is somewhat remarkably inefficient, and while his latest 3.2 IP performance in Texas does drag down his average somewhat, he’s yet to make it past the 6.2 inning mark this season.
To be fair to Doubront, there’s an element of unluckiness at play here, too. There’s no way he goes through the season with a .397 BABIP, and his 65.8% LOB% is a safe bet to improve as well. That being said, his HR/FB rate isn’t going to sit as low at 5.3% all season, so we can expect to see some more balls start leaving the yard soon.
Finally, the last significant stats we should examine this season are Doubron’t strikeout and walk rates, which have both seen significant jumps since a season ago. A K/9 of
10.33 is outstanding, but it’s pretty clear that this uptick is coming at the expense of Doubront’s command, as a BB/9 of 4.67 is unacceptable from a starter on a team in contention.
Now let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Doubront’s velocity is down across the board from a season ago. Doubront’s fastball is down from an average of 92.7 mph a
year ago to 90.2 this season, and his cutter velocity is down by more than a full mph as well. It’s just May, so there’s no real cause for concern yet, but his velocity is definitely worth keeping an eye on, and it’s something that’s clearly bothering Doubront himself.
“It’s weird, man,” the pitcher told Rob Bradford. “It’s nothing that’s bothering me. It’s so weird. I can’t explain it. I just keep throwing, and we’ll see.”
John Farrell admitted to noticing the drop in velocity as well,
“We know that his fastball lacks some of the consistent power that we’ve seen in the past,” Farrell said. “Physically, though, he doesn’t express any restrictions or any
tightness, any soreness. When he tries to get his better velocity, that’s when he starts to really lose command, so I know he’ll acknowledge where the ball’s not coming out of
his hand as it’s been in the past. We have to go by that there’s no aches or no stiffness or soreness.”
This combination of erratic performance, possible conditioning issues (from Spring Training) and a sudden influx of pitching talent in the high minors has many fans asking: should Doubront be dropped from the rotation?
It’s a tempting proposition, to be sure. Allen Webster looks excellent in Triple-A right now and held his own in his major league debut. He’s clearly a big part of the future of the Red Sox rotation, and his ceiling is a bit higher than Doubront’s while he largely possesses the same floor. Webster has thrown for a 2.70 ERA and 2.45 FIP through 20 Triple-A innings thus for, posting a 11.70 K/9 and a BB/9 of 2.70.
As talented as Webster is, though, I’d propose waiting a good while longer before dropping Doubront from a starting role. We’ve seen over recent years that there truly is no such thing as too much pitching depth, and the likes of Buchholz and John Lackey have not exactly been paradigms of health in recent years. Dempster has been durable for much of his career, but he did just turn 36 and no pitcher is a guarantee to log 200 innings in any season.
It’s likely that the Red Sox will need to use Webster again this season as an injury replacement, not a luxury, and there’s no reason to eliminate the depth Webster gives the Sox right now.
If you’re thinking, “well, if someone gets hurt, we can just move Doubront back into the rotation,” I’d caution that’s not as easy as it seems. Some players, like Morales and to
some extent Alfredo Aceves, have the ability to bounce between roles and still perform adequately. We have no idea if Doubront is capable, and we’ve seen what happens to pitchers when transitions fail.
Transitioning Doubront into a bullpen role would create some redundancies on the roster as well. If you’re looking for a high-strikeout, high-walk situational lefty, Miller
has that locked down. And if you’re looking for a left-handed swing starter, that’s a job Franklin Morales performed admirably last season, and he should be back soon.
Doubront is also out of options, meaning sending him to the Triple-A rotation is out of the question. There is no way he’d make it through waivers, as he still possesses the
upside of a No. 3 starter and he’s under team control for many years. Notions of trading Doubront right now are a bit misguided as well, as it’s never a good idea to trade a player when his value is lowest.
Doubront’s performance has been frustrating so far – perhaps doubly so given the improvement by the starters around him – but dropping him from the rotation now is
premature. If we’re still having this debate in late June and Webster is still performing well, perhaps then my trigger finger will become a bit itchier. But by then it’s possible that one of Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa or even Anthony Ranaudo could come to take Webster’s place as an MLB-ready arm waiting in the wings, affording the Sox more depth.
It may not be pretty to watch right now, but Doubront deserves more time to right the ship in the major league rotation.
That we’re having this debate at all proves that the Red Sox are in a much better place than they were a year ago.
Categories: 2013 Boston Red Sox Alfredo Aceves Allen Webster Andrew Miller Anthony Ranaudo Boston Red Sox Clay Buchholz Daniel Bard Felix Doubront Franklin Morales John Lackey Jon Lester Matt Barnes Rubby de la Rosa Ryan Dempster Will Middlebrooks