The value of Felix Doubront to the Boston Red Sox

Jim Rogash

Felix Doubront starts are often short and sometimes quite difficult to watch. But does that make him expendable?

Last night, Felix Doubront threw 6.2 innings of three-run baseball. There are few who will question the worth of that to a baseball team. After all, that's a 4.05 ERA from a back-end starter, and would typically need only two relievers to complete the job.

We have to acknowledge, however, that this is not the norm for Felix. The norm is five innings, maybe six. Going back to last year, his first as a major league starter, Doubront has pitched 178 innings in 32 starts, allowing 95 earned runs. That makes for an average start of 5.2 innings with a 4.80 ERA. Not nearly so good as what we saw last night.

Last year, some 128 pitchers managed to get through at least 100 innings of work. Of those, Doubront's 4.80 ERA would rank 105th (his actual ERA on the year was, of course, awfully close, coming in 109th). It's not a good position, no, but it's worth noting that this is, in itself, an exclusive list. 130 pitchers would not quite fill every rotation in the majors. 105 would get halfway to giving everyone a fourth starter.

The Red Sox are a team that's looking to contend, of course, and teams that are hopeful contenders are not entirely content to just have average players at any given position. Add in Doubront's proclivity for short individual outings and the stress it puts on the bullpen, and it's still not clear how the Red Sox should feel about having him as a back-end starter.

For my money, then, Doubront's value to the Red Sox comes down to a few things:

1) The strength of the bullpen

At the moment, the bullpen is in slighty rough shape. Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, and Andrew Bailey are all being worn a bit ragged by so many outings, and until Joel Hanrahan, Craig Breslow, and Franklin Morales are back, it's going to be tough keeping the bullpen fresh, especially with Felix Doubront and Alfredo Aceves typically requiring plenty of help to get through their outings.

Once the pen is back at full strength, however, Doubront's outings become that much more tolerable. While he may not be a top-notch starter, he's not exactly 2011 John Lackey. If it's rarely pretty or easy, Felix Doubront does keep the Red Sox in games, unlike certain other pitchers.

Ah, heck, let's go down the list from the last two years:

  • Zach Stewart
  • Kyle Weiland
  • John Lackey
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka
  • Daniel Bard
  • Aaron Cook (after those first few weeks)
  • Andrew Miller

There are some other debatable ones, but the point is that the Red Sox have had to go through a lot of starting pitchers who really did not give the bullpen chances to hold the game. Of course in 2012 that didn't matter much since the pen was just awful for most of the year, but with the 2013 relief corps, it's more important to have someone who can give up three in five rather than five in seven.

2) The lack of ready alternatives

If the Red Sox were in a situation where they were dealing with a starter logjam in the minors, there might be an argument for moving Doubront on. Of course, the Dodgers have provided a good example of why starting depth should never be taken lightly, but the Red Sox aren't really even in a position to take that lesson to heart.

Behind Doubront, their minor league options amount to Allen Webster, who was good in his debut but has only a pair of starts above Double-A. There's also Alfredo Aceves, who has done a good job in place of John Lackey, but is really not someone who can be considered more trustworthy than Doubront at this point.

Eventually, Franklin Morales will be back as well, but even then we're looking at John Lackey, Franklin Morales, Felix Doubront, and Alfredo Aceves to fill the back-end of the rotation. Even acknowledging how good Lackey looked in his first start, it's hard to see how Doubront isn't part of the best options there.

3) The upside

It's easy to forget, since he made his first start all the way back in 2010, but Felix Doubront is still just 25 years old. And at the moment, many of the criticisms that can be leveled against him have to do with his approach to the game. He is wild at times, yes, but he's also got the raw stuff to strike out plenty of batters.

Really, what Doubront needs to be able to do is to approach at bats putting more importance on the game situation than the man at the plate. Last year, Doubront allowed just a .684 OPS to the #3-#6 hitters in opposing lineups, but a .904 OPS to the top-two and .806 to the bottom-three. We've also seen time and again that it doesn't really matter to Doubront if his team is tied or has a five-run lead. When he really should just be trying to avoid the big inning, Doubront sticks to the same approach as ever, often keeping him from going deep and on occasion even putting a big lead in jeopardy with unnecessary walks.

Clearly, though, the upside is there. It is by no means easy to keep those middle-of-the-order hitters down like Doubront has in his career. If he can do that against the best, he can certainly do it against the worst as well. He just has to make that mental jump in terms of how he approaches any given at bat.

Even if he never makes that jump, though, even if Doubront is Doubront and that's that, so long as he's under team control that's not such a bad thing. A 4.80 ERA isn't pretty. 5.2 innings per game isn't pretty. But fifth starters aren't pretty. Julian Tavarez wasn't pretty, and it's easy to forget, but neither was Derek Lowe from April to September in 2004. Still, these are players just about every team needs. And if Doubront can consistently be that player for the rest of the year, we Red Sox fans shouldn't take that for granted.

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