This offseason, the Red Sox have made a lot of interesting moves. They've put themselves in a position where they have an outside chance at being very successful, and should at least be intriguing throughout the season, bringing in players like David Ross, Mike Napoli (maybe), Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara, Stephen Drew and Joel Hanrahan. However, it's been widely agreed upon that the biggest key to the season will be the team's starting pitching. For now, it looks like they'll be relying mainly on pitchers who are already on the roster, as Dempster is the only starter they've brought in this winter at that position, and it doesn't look like they'll be making any more moves on that front.
Most would be in agreement that Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are the biggest keys to the season. If healthy, the latter is more of a sure thing to pitch well, while the former has shown before 2012 that he can be a near-elite pitcher. Last week, I covered how I think John Lackey will pitch in his return in 2013. That leaves one returning rotation member: Felix Doubront.
Last season was the 25 year old's first full season of big-league work, and he spent all of 2012 in the rotation. In 29 starts, he won 11 games and put up a 4.86 ERA and an 89 ERA+. The biggest issue for Doubront last season was the number of free passes he allowed. He gave up just about four walks per nine innings, which is close to a full point above the league average. Expanding on that a bit, his 1.45 WHIP was 14 points above the league-average.
Taking a deeper look into Doubront's season reveals a different truth, though. For him, 2012 was basically a tale of two halves. In the first half of the season, he looked much better than he did in the second. To start the year, he put up a 4.41 ERA to go along with an impressive 2.77 K/BB ratio. Then, as the season reached the dog days of summer, he went into a free-fall, producing a 5.54 ERA with a weak 1.94 K/BB ratio. That last number managed to get significantly worse despite a spike in his K-rate.
The decline in Doubront's numbers in the second-half of last season can be largely blamed on a lack of control. Despite pitching 31 fewer innings in the latter portion of the schedule, he still managed to allow one more free pass in that time compared to the first half. This lack of control killed his numbers, even with his impressive stuff.
He surprised a lot of people with his ability to rack up strikeouts, which was a skill that never really jumped out in his previous stints in the majors. He averaged 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings for the entire 2012 season. Compare that to the league average of 7.5, and Doubront's arsenal seems like it's definitely major-league quality.
Growing pains are to be expected from a young pitcher, especially one whose first consistent time at the highest level comes exclusively as a starting pitcher. While the results weren't great by any stretch of the imagination, there are reasons to be encouraged. Doubront managed to sit around 93.5 MPH with his fastball last year, and even bumped that up slightly to 93.8 in the final month of the season. If fatigue was a factor for him in his first full-season grind, it didn't show in his velocity.
The likely reason for his second-half struggles was the league adjusting to him. Where batters may have chased pitches out of the zone early on in the year, they started to take those pitches and were drawing more walks. Before the 2013 season starts, it's Doubront's job to make adjustments of his own to limit the amount of free passes he gives up. With the stuff he showed last year, he'll still be in good shape if he has to take away a few of his strikeouts in exchange for a reduction in walks.
Doubront's season next year could really go in so many different directions. He could figure out his control issues from last year and turn into a reliable middle-of-the-rotation pitcher with above-average stuff. He could also fail to adjust to the league's new approach to him, and eventually find himself out of the rotation if any of the prospects show they're ready for a chance. Or, more likely, he could wind up somewhere in between those points.
There is a lot of uncertainty that surrounds this Red Sox team, of which Doubront is just another source. Many fans are excited because he had some decent stretches last season, and he's still a young player. However, there is no certainty he'll take a step forward next year. He's going to need to adapt to his opponents, or he'll find himself with another ERA hovering around five. Whether or not he can do so is another mystery on a team that is overstocked on them.