Felix Doubront

Felix Doubront (Keith Allison/Flickr.com)

Consider the statistics of the following three pitchers:

Pitcher A: 200.2 innings, 7.67 K/9, 4.13 BB/9, 4.18 SIERA
Pitcher B: 199.1 innings, 9.35 K/9, 3.43 BB/9, 3.49 SIERA
Pitcher C: 161 innings, 9.34 K/9, 3.97 BB/9, 3.84 SIERA

Pitcher A is Gio Gonzalez in 2010 in his age-24 season. This was considered a breakout year for Gonzalez, as the stud southpaw, then with the Oakland Athletics, posted an impressive 3.3 fWAR in his first real full season (he tossed 99.1 strong innings for Oakland in 2009, too).

Pitcher B is also Gonzalez, this time in 2012 in his age-26 season. Now an ace on a power-packed Washington Nationals staff, Gonzalez went 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA and 5.4 fWAR, placing third in the National League Cy Young Award voting. Gonzalez led the NL in wins, finished sixth in ERA and tied for fourth in strikeouts in a truly electric season for the lefty.

Pitcher C is Felix Doubront, who just completed his age-24 season for the Red Sox. Comparing Doubront’s 2012 campaign to Gonzalez’s 2010, it’s hard to argue that Doubront wasn’t the more impressive pitcher; he struck out more and walked fewer batters per nine innings (though both surrendered a lot of walks), and his SIERA was 34 points lower.

Doubront and Gonzalez have similar repertoires, too. Both are left-handed; both have decent velocity on their fastballs and use quality off-speed pitches to fool hitters. Gonzalez’ curveball is the most polished pitch between the two of them (and it was when he was 24, too), but Doubront can consistently get his fastball up to 95 miles per hour.

The comp is an easy one to make on the surface, but it’s premature to suggest that Doubront into develop into the same kind of quality pitcher that Gonzalez has become. Could he? Certainly. The real question, though, is what the Red Sox can realistically expect to get out of Doubront in the next few years.

Let’s consider the major difference between Doubront and Gonzalez, or at least in their rate statistics. In 2010, Gonzalez posted a 7.4 % HR/FB rate; in 2012, it shrunk to 5.8%. Doubront’s HR/FB rate in 2012 was a whopping 15.9%.

The difference here seems to be a cause of two entwined entities. For one, Gonzalez has a sensational curveball that makes his already-good fastball and changeup better. Meanwhile, Doubront is still working on his curve, having profiled mostly as a two-pitch reliever coming up in the Boston farm system.

The other reason for the difference in home run rates could also be attributed to park factors. Gonzalez pitched in Oakland and Washington in 2010 and 2012, two of the best pitchers parks in the majors. Doubront threw half his games in Fenway, a slight hitters park but even more worrisome for left-handers, especially those who surrender an above-average amount of fly balls.

Doubront was probably unlucky on fly balls in 2012 – a 10% HR/FB rate is around average for a big league pitcher, and 15% is just absurd. But he needs to improve on his curveball in order to keep balls in the park and become a quality starting pitcher.

Doubront posted 2.1 fWAR in three-quarters of a season last year, so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that he hovers around a 3-win campaign in 2013, even if he doesn’t improve. However, there’s another red flag surrounding Doubront – his risk of injury.

Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci listed Doubront as a “Pitcher at Risk” of injury, citing evidence of similar young starters whose innings workload increased dramatically from their previous season-highs. Doubront threw 129.1 innings in 2008 in Class-A ball, but only pitched 77.1 innings in 2011. In 2012 he threw 161, but missed a few weeks in August for what the Red Sox called a knee contusion.

Verducci’s system, or what he calls the “Year-After Effect,” makes some sense in identifying potential injury risks. Then again, Verducci also makes the following (responsible) claim:

“The Year-After Effect, as I called the risk after a big innings jumps, is not a scientific, predictive system. It’s a rule of thumb to identify pitchers who may be at risk because of a sharp increase in workload.”

The bottom line is that, sure, Doubront is a potential injury risk. But just how likely is an injury if he attempts to pitch 200 innings? There’s no real concrete evidence to prove it one way or another. And Red Sox management doesn’t seem too concerned.

“It’s something we discuss with any young pitcher who sees an increase in innings but we have no specific concerns about Doubront and no reason he shouldn’t be full go for season,” Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington told the Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham.

So, what do we make of all of this? If we look at a range of possibilities for Doubront, it falls somewhere in between his left arm falling off for trying to pitch too much and him developing a dynamic curveball that makes him one of the best southpaws in the game.

Neither of those two scenarios is likely, but what Sox fans can realistically hope for is that Doubront’s curve develops, his walks decrease a bit, and his luck with fly balls comes back to a normal standard.

The Red Sox might have the next Gio Gonzalez on their hands. If Doubront takes steps in that direction in 2013, it will absolutely help Boston’s slim playoff chances.