Mark L. Baer-US PRESSWIRE
Doubront's age-24 season was a surprisingly rare one in baseball history, making him tough to predict
Felix Doubront's first full season in the majors had its disappointments, but overall, 160-plus innings from a 24-year-old where he strikes out over a batter per inning is a success. There is absolutely work to be done in reducing his ERA, increasing his innings, and fixing his problems with efficiency, but again, for a first-time effort, there is more to like than dislike in his 2012 season.
Figuring out what kind of career he is going to have based on that season, and even his minor-league numbers, isn't an easy task, though. It turns out that pitchers with seasons like Doubront's are somewhat rare in baseball history -- it's not often that a 24-year-old starting pitcher lasts a full season in the bigs, with the combination of lofty punch out rates and maybe a few too many walks. In fact, using Baseball-Reference's Play Index database, we can see that, including Doubront's 2012, there are exactly seven seasons that fit this criteria since 1901.
To be more specific, there are seven 24-year-old pitchers with at least nine batters whiffed per nine, 3.5 walks per nine or more, and 150 innings. Even if you push it back to 100-inning samples, there are just 11 -- let's stick with seven, though, since Doubront, even with his efficiency issues, logged over 160 frames.
That's what we call a range. As expected, a few pitchers were just okay, building a case more for future excitement than that in the present day. Others, like Yovani Gallardo and Sandy Koufax, were average, but average at that age, and with those strikeout rates, is an impressive feat. Then there's Scott Kazmir, Kerry Wood, and Edinson Volquez, who were all dominant in spite of their walk rates. Well, at least, they were dominant when they were 24.
One odd trait that's shared among more than half the group is that their careers ended early, but for very different reasons. Don Wilson was out of the majors after his age-29 campaign: Wilson died that off-season from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. For that reason, he doesn't fit in with the rest of the group, and we'll avoid speculating on what could have been for a pitcher whose career was tragically cut short.
The rest of the bunch, though, have baseball-related reasons for their early exits. Kerry Wood was forced to switch to relief thanks to arm problems that began before his professional career, but were given a swift kick in the wrong direction by overzealous, early-aughts Dusty Baker. Sandy Koufax retired after his age-30 season, despite throwing 323 innings and winning the National League Cy Young award. Actually, that might have been part of the problem, as Koufax's arm was in constant pain, and was told that, were he to continue to pitch, he would eventually lose full use of the limb. Retirement is understandable in that circumstance.
Kazmir is still technically around, but he last pitched in the majors in 2011, when he was 27, and the last 300 innings of his career sport a 5.54 ERA and 1.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was in the indy leagues in 2012, and didn't fare much better than that -- chances are very good that his career as we used to know it, the one that showed so much promise at 24, is long gone. Edinson Volquez will be 29 in 2013, but has never even come close to approaching the levels of his age-24 campaign since. Volquez owns an 84 ERA+ as a starter since, and while he has continued to miss bats, the walks haven't gone away, and homers remain despite his ground ball tendencies. While his career isn't over, a move to the bullpen is likely in his future, possibly as soon as 2013 once the Padres get some arms back for the rotation.
Yovani Gallardo is the only one of the bunch with multiple full years in the league who hasn't seen his production, health, or both crumble. Asking Doubront to morph into him is a bit much, as Gallardo was ranked 16 on Baseball America's top 100 before entering the majors as a 21-year-old, but it's still heartening to see someone combine success with an ability to stay on the mound from this bunch.
There are obvious areas Doubront needs to escape here, in order to be more successful than he was in 2012. He needs to improve on his efficiency, both to increase his innings, and to avoid being overworked. His control and command need to make progress, and by doing so, he would improve his efficiency -- this would ensure Doubront avoids the Volquez career path, and would also keep him away from the early demise of Kazmir, who never did shake his tendency for short starts with high pitch counts, and cleared 200 innings once in six attempts. Those are the two players from this list whom Doubront seems to have the most in common with -- none of these three are or were efficient hurlers, they all have great stuff, and, as with everyone else here, they were successful at a young age despite questions surrounding them.
If Doubront can improve his efficiency and lengthen his outings, he should be able to succeed in ways that Kazmir and Volquez never did, by becoming a reliable mid-rotation arm who could be depended on for full seasons of work. That's a serious if, though, even though his excellent end to 2012 showed promise. Doubront showed flashes of all possible futures for him in 2012, and 2013 is going to be about settling more into one of those than the others, making it Duobront's most-significant campaign as pro to date.