Felix Doubront has been a polarizing player since becoming a member of the Red Sox rotation back in 2012. The left-hander has been both lauded for his stuff and strikeout ability and criticized for his persistent control problems and a perceived subpar work ethic. Indeed, Red Sox officials were said to be unhappy with Doubront’s offseason conditioning last winter, something they believe contributed to his rocky April and May in 2013.

Yet despite his detractors, there is little denying that Doubront has an intriguing arsenal from the left side, and given his youth (he turned 26 in October), some improvement is still possible. Which is why a few observers have labeled Doubront as a potential breakout candidate for the season ahead, with WEEI’s Alex Speier citing Doubront’s impressive strikeout totals for a pitcher so young.

Felix Doubront

Can Felix Doubront take another step forward in 2014? (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

From one perspective, further progress for Doubront in 2014 looks like a good bet. After a disastrous first two months last season (in which Doubront posted a 5.29 ERA over 49.1 innings), the Venezuelan native started 13 straight games without allowing more than three earned runs, holding opponents to a .309 on-base percentage and compiling a 2.63 ERA in the process. Fatigue led to a couple rocky starts in September, but even so, Doubront finished the final four months of 2013 with a 3.55 ERA over 111.2 innings.

Doubront’s recovery from a tough start, coupled with a 3.78 FIP that indicates his 4.32 ERA in 2013 might have been a tad deceptive, lends credence to the notion that the Red Sox left-hander could be in for an improved campaign this summer. Examining more closely some of Doubront’s stats in his first two seasons as a starter demonstrates the adjustments he has already made and what is needed for him to take the next step in his development.

Despite a series of strong performances in the summer months, Doubront’s strikeout rate actually dropped from 23.6% in 2012 to 19.7% in 2013. To compensate, Doubront became a more efficient pitcher, generating weaker contact, more groundballs, and allowing fewer home runs. He cut his HR/FB% in half last season, giving up the long ball on just 7.8% of his fly balls allowed, a far better rate than the team-worst 15.9% mark he posted in 2012.

In addition, Doubront’s line-drive rate fell from 23.4% to 19.9%, while his groundball rate increased to 45.6%, a nice tradeoff that indicates the weaker contact Doubront was able to produce last year. The southpaw’s changeup has quietly become his best pitch, yielding a .229 opponent’s batting average and the highest individual strikeout rate of his five offerings.

If Doubront can combine the best aspects of his first two seasons in MLB, he has a strong chance to take another step forward in 2014. Though his strikeouts dipped last season, Doubront was far more successful in limiting the damage opposing batters made when they did make contact. Picking up a few more strikeouts, like he did back in 2012 when he led all Red Sox starters in K/9, along with his improvement in limiting home runs and line drives, would go a long way toward helping Doubront further progress as a starting pitcher. His high walk totals remain an issue, but further experience and better conditioning should only help Doubront avoid surrendering the free pass more frequently.

That Doubront has the talent to become an even better starting pitcher is reason for cautious optimism regarding the 26-year-old in the season ahead. He has experienced a few bumps in the road during his major league career already, but more importantly, Doubront has shown an intriguing ability and pitch repertoire at an age that suggests even more development is possible. The left-hander has impressed already this spring (allowing just three hits in his first two appearances) and just needs to find a little more consistency to excel over a long season. If Doubront can take that next step in his career, he will be a major piece in the club’s efforts to get back into the postseason again this fall.