What to do with Felix Doubront?


Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Felix Doubront debuted in 2010 after spending four seasons in the minors within the Red Sox’ organization. In his minor-league tenure, he had a proclivity to strike guys out at an above-average rate and walk his fair share of batters. His big, devastating curveball was renowned as his put-away pitch, complementing a fastball ranging from 93-96 miles per hour. He had the stuff to flourish at the big-league level and was given the chance to take over as a full-time starter in 2012. Since then, he’s been very inconsistent and has the tendency to reach 100 pitches by the 5th-6th inning, which is a burden on the bullpen, having to consistently work harder every fifth day. Additionally, his fastball velocity has plummeted each season. Below is a breakdown of his maximum and average velocity on his fastball, according to Pitchf/x:

2010: Average 91.5 mph | Maximum 95.5 mph

2011: Average 92.9 mph | Maximum 96.1 mph

2012: Average 92.8 mph | Maximum 96.0 mph

2013: Average 90.6 mph | Maximum 94.3 mph

2014: Average 90.2 mph | Maximum 93.2 mph

Looking at the numbers, it is conspicuous how his velocity has taken a snag over the past few years. You would expect such a significant drop-off from a player such as C.C. Sabathia, whose velocity is dropping with age — not someone like Doubront who is in the prime of his career. He’s never suffered an ailment that would offer an explanation — at least, not that we know of. The southpaw has stayed healthy the bulk of his career and tends to steer clear of the disabled list.

It may be a conditioning issue, which he has been known for in the past — showing up to Spring Training out-of-shape and unprepared for baseball activities.

Also, do not rule out that it could be somewhat of a team-employed tactic, with the goal of diminishing the wear and tear on his arm by throwing the fastball slower. This in return, would allow Doubront to pitch longer into games and alleviate concerns of injury in doing so. The strategy, whether implemented by the pitcher or suggested by the coach, actually happens more frequently than you would surmise. For example, Daniel Bard used to average a fastball velocity over 97 mph for three years before making the switch to the rotation in 2012. When he made the transition, his fastball velocity fell to an average of 93.2 mph.

Obviously, it did not work out for Bard, whose career’s been ruined from the switch. However, it may have actually worked for Doubront.

Notice that Doubront’s velocity did not descend until 2013 — his second year as a starter. Doubront irrefutably made strides in 2013. He lowered his ERA (earned run average) .64 points and FIP (fielding independent pitching) by .59. Conversely, his K/BB ratio actually fell to 1.96 last season, from 2.35 in 2012. It’s not erroneous to attribute that to the substantial drop in fastball velocity and his K% on his curveball fell from 50.5% in 2012, to 30.0% last year.

Felix Doubront comes into Monday with an abysmal 5.09 ERA and 4.93 FIP in 35 and 1/3 innings. He does not have an existing minor-league option available so he is in no danger of being sent down or released. There’s too much potential inhabited in Doubront and Boston does not want to make a grave mistake by giving up on him this early.

With an abundance of young arms poised to appear soon from Triple-A, it would not be crazy to see Doubront as the Red Sox’ long relief man in the future. His durability, repetition of sound mechanics, and lack of focus has always been problematic but they would not be nearly as much of a problem in that role.

He would have fewer command issues as the game persists because he would only be going a few innings an outing. The pressure and intensity are so much greater out of the bullpen so lack of focus would not be an issue. We saw him pitch in that role during the postseason and he was stupendous. In 7 innings of work, the lefty pitched to the tune of a phenomenal 1.29 ERA. There’s no better barometer of pitching in a clutch situation than that of postseason play, and he thrived in that role. Who knows? Could the switch to the bullpen also resurrect his 93-96 mph heater? Pending a drastic improvement from Doubront this year, this is where he is destined. A role that suits him much better and should ameliorate his performance.