Sometimes I wonder why Felix Doubront isn’t held in higher regard among Red Sox fans, but then again, I’m not that surprised.
After all, Doubront was signed as an international free agent in 2004 at the age of 16 – during a period in time where the Red Sox farm system was both flush and being flooded with premium talent. Players like Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard, Justin Masterson, Ryan Kalish, Josh Reddick and Lars Anderson would all be drafted within a year or two of Doubront’s arrival.
It was never a matter of Doubront being a poor prospect per se, it was just that he wasn’t one of those can’t miss players. In fact, from the time he signed, most scouts and prospect junkies felt that he was a pretty strong bet to crack the big leagues, whether as a strong late-inning relief option or as a middle of the rotation starting pitcher.
However, as he began to make his way through the Red Sox system, the flashier (and older) players around him began their rapid assent to the big leagues, some of them even making it to Boston within a year or two. Doubront became old news and eventually, people began to do what they always do with young, developing baseball players who’ve been sitting on their top prospects list for too long: They began to focus in on everything he couldn’t do. In fact, if you wade through various scouting reports on him that are circulating the web from that time period, you find all sorts of interesting criticisms ranging from the development of his pitches, to his mechanical flaws and the always appropriate ‘he’s fat.’
After injuring his shoulder in 2011, he caught a bit of a break – at least for his sake- as 2012 began to peak its head up over the horizon. With the Red Sox in sore need of back end pitching and not having much in the way of money to help patch the gaps, the team found itself falling back on a random assortment of spare parts, dumpster dives and out-of-options prospects in order to fill out the rotation. Doubront ended up being one of those pieces.
He showed up at Spring Training in great shape and ready to pitch. With most of the media still fixated on the 2011 collapse, Bobby Valentine hijinx and Daniel Bard‘s soon-to-be-failed conversation to the rotation, Doubront was able to quietly go about his business and impress team decision makers behind the scenes enough to earn himself a spot in the starting rotation.
The results were pretty great up until the middle of August when he hit his innings cap and the wheels fell off. To that point, he sat on a solid 3.54 SIERA and a rotation-high 9.48 K/9 at the time. In spite of some brief praise in the middle of the season, once August hit, the shine again had worn off and here we were back at square one.
Back to focusing in on what was wrong with him.
Now it wasn’t like people were trying to run him out of town on a rail, but let’s be honest – there’s always been an ongoing undertone from the media & fans that Doubront isn’t seen as a long term solution in Boston – that he’s just here to keep the seat warm for that next big free agent or the next super-prospect. And that exacerbated some of the slightly negative attitudes towards him at the beginning of this year – where the media began to fixate on his weight, his delivery, his efficiency and most of all – his work ethic.
After some initial struggles in April, Doubront’s heated up to a degree that no one – even ardent proponents of his – could have foreseen.
Since May 8th, Doubront hasn’t given up more than 3ER in one, single, solitary start. His ERA over that period is at a shocking 2.45 – good enough for 10th in all of Major League Baseball; a mark that puts him ahead of highly regarded, star players like Max Scherzer, Yu Darvish, Felix Hernandez, Matt Harvey, Jered Weaver, Adam Wainwright, Cole Hamels, Chris Sale, C.J. Wilson, Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke, James Shields, Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander.
More importantly, it looks like his performance might be sustainable. While both his HR/FB% and BABIP are a bit low and set him up for a bit of regression, don’t bet on those backward steps being significant. He’s inducing considerably weaker contact this year, with only 16.7% of the balls being put into play against him being line drives. What’s even better is when you see that the percentage that’s come off his career average LD% has found itself a new home in his GB% in 2013. His 73.1% LOB% has been the one totally normal luck statistic of his, so his walks aren’t gobbling him up, nor is his defense letting him down.
And it’s not like Doubront’s been doing this against poor competition. Over the course of his streak, Felix has had to face the Rays, (4 times), Angels (2 times), Tigers (1 time), Orioles (1 time), Indians (2 times) and Athletics (1 time). And if you count the Blue Jays as a good offense (which you should), you can add even more credibility to that list.
There’s been a lot made of his lack of efficiency with his pitch counts, but unlike most, his high counts have less to do with control and more to do with pitch selection. While Doubront’s capable of throwing in the mid-90’s now and then, he’s never been a guy who relies on his FB to get strike outs. In fact, it’s his off-speed stuff that’s his bread and butter. While his changeup has developed nicely over the years, it’s his curve ball which generates the most swings and misses. When you add in the fact that he likes to live in the extreme-bottom of the strike zone, only throwing an occasional FB or Cutter up – it should come as little surprise that he gets a lot of called balls and as a result – his pitch counts get jacked up. Again, it’s not his control – it’s just where he likes to pitch.
Everything he’s throwing in the zone is being swung at, hit and missed at his usual career averages, but it’s what’s happening right outside the zone that’s most interesting. Last year, he was getting more hitters to chase outside the zone. This year, they’re not swinging as much, but when they do, they’re making contact at a higher%. The problem for hitters though, is that they’re not making good contact on those pitches and as a result, they’re beating more and more Doubront breaking pitches into the ground for outs. Safe to say, a chunk of his GB% spike has something to do with that.
Then there’s the whole confidence thing. In the past, he’d use his out pitches outside of the zone to mix up opposing hitters and avoid being hit. Now he’s not throwing pitches out of the zone because he’s afraid of getting tagged, but rather that’s where he’s most comfortable getting outs. He’s striking fewer guys out, but they’re taking the bait of that tasty curve ball floating down in the zone that looks like it’s hanging, but really isn’t. For Doubront, it has to feel nice knowing that contact be damned, you can still get the outs you need. And oh – don’t worry about him missing bats. He’s doing plenty of that, too – to the tune of an 8.2% swstr%.
So the question remains – is this really Felix Doubront? Statistically, that’s a little cloudy, but watching him pitch and considering his overall approach, it may well be.
Regardless of whether he’s the second coming of Cliff Lee or just another back end of the rotation arm, the Red Sox deserve a degree of praise, here. By taking a chance and being patient, they were able to cultivate and create one of the most prized assets in baseball: a young, talented, cheap, left-handed starting pitcher.