About 10 years ago, an ERA of 4.59 over 160 innings of work would have been an entirely respectable showing from any starting pitcher. The game was different then, in the height of the steroid era. Even at an ERA of 4.87, for instance, Tim Wakefield was almost a perfectly league-average pitcher in 2004, coming in with 188 innings of 99 ERA+ ball. Not fantastic, but something every team needs.
These days, that number is not nearly so impressive. Even in Fenway Park, up against the A.L. East, it actually works out to a 90 ERA+, a good 10% below league average. And that, hard as it might be to believe for those of us who've watched these last two years of Red Sox baseball, is the number boasted by Felix Doubront since taking over a regular spot in the starting rotation.
On second thought, perhaps it's not so hard to believe for some of you. Felix has his fair share of doubters, after all. But ever since he started Boston's first win in 2012, he's seemed to step to the front of the rotation as one of Boston's best pitchers, at least for long stretches of time. Admittedly, in 2012, that's not saying much. Still, it was Doubront who had an ERA of 3.75 as late as June 7th, and still managed to pull it down to 4.37 after the end of July.
More impressive was his run through 2013. It's easy to forget given how well everything came together in the end, but for a while there the rotation was...concerning. It seemed like the Red Sox just couldn't get everyone together. John Lackey went down in his first start of the season, Jon Lester hit a serious slump come May, and Clay Buchholz missed first one start, then a solid dozen. All the while, Ryan Dempster was fading, fading, fading.
To be fair, Doubront was originally part of this problem. While complaints of his struggles were exaggerated in April, a pair of bad games to start May saw him surrender twelve runs in nine innings, leading to calls for him to be dropped from the rotation in favor of any of the numerous depth options the Red Sox had available.
He responded by allowing no more than three earned runs for 16 straight starts, providing the team with 96 innings of 2.73 ERA baseball. Then, as he did the year before, he faded, ultimately leading the Red Sox to relegate him to the bullpen.
The heights have certainly been there for Doubront. We've seen what he can do when the season is young and he's ready to go. The question is whether or not he can actually make it work over he course of a full year. Some will point to conditioning, and that's certainly been an issue in the past, but I think more likely we're just looking at the growing pains of a young pitcher here. 2013 represented Doubront's age 25 season, and just the second time he'd thrown more than 130 innings. Unsurprisingly, that's the innings total where Doubront's performance started to slip, slightly later than it had in 2012.
Of course, if that's all that Felix Doubront can muster over the course of a season, then it's something he's going to have to deal with throughout his career no matter where he ends up. The Red Sox, thankfully, are relatively well-situated to do just that given all the minor-league depth they have in the system. Still, in terms of his overall value as a player, there's a big difference between the half-season Felix Doubront we've seen, and the one who can keep it up for 180-200 innings. That's especially true if the half-season Doubront always comes with a few weeks at the end where he plays well below replacement level.
Doubront won't turn 27 until the postseason is over next year, but it's getting to the point where inexperience and age are no longer going to be valid excuses. There's certainly a place for him in Boston's rotation going into 2014. Past that, however, will come down to what he proves capable of in the coming season.