All season long the Red Sox have struggled to find a quality third man in the bullpen. Hideki Okajima was supposed to be that pitcher, and he received the bulk of those innings, but he also has performed significantly worse than any other pitcher the Sox have employed for more than a few innings. Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez and various others just have not been effective enough to be considered for this go-to role either, which has hurt Boston throughout the season.
Enter Felix Doubront, who split the year between Portland and Pawtucket as a starter and made three spot-starts for the big league club as well. Doubront struck out 8.3 batters per nine while walking 3.9 per nine in Pawtucket, which are potentially exciting numbers but more likely those of an average starter in the majors. The control is a problem, and Doubront loses his command at times, but as a 22-year old left-hander succeeding at the highest level of the minors, it’s tough to ask for much more.
There was not a whole lot to love about his three starts for Boston, as Doubront struck out 10 but walked eight while giving up 11 runs (seven earned). Those kinds of struggles are normal for a pitcher of his age though–for every Mat Latos there’s an army of 22 year olds still learning the craft on the job, and even Latos got knocked around in an April that seems so very far away now. That’s not to say Doubront is Latos, or even anything close to it–it’s just a reminder that those three starts in the majors, at his age with his limited experience at a high level, are not indicative of his future.
That being said, there are ways where Doubront can be effective right now at the major league level despite this, and the Red Sox are using him in one such role. The Venezuelan southpaw has been used out of the bullpen since August 7, and has been dominant in the role: he has a 3.38 ERA, 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings, and 2.2 walks per nine while holding the opposition to a .207/.273/.345 line.
It’s a small sample at just eight innings, but there are reasons to be enthused by it. Doubront has four pitches: a four-seam fastball that averages 91 mph, a two-seamer with movement that moves around the same speed as his four-seamer, a mid-80s change up, and a slow curveball that he has had some excellent command over since switching to the bullpen. Having two fastballs that move at roughly the same speed but move in different directions is a great way to keep hitters off balance, and when you can pinpoint your curve and generate whiffs or called strikes, you’re going to be difficult to face. Moving to the bullpen has also meant an uptick in his velocity, allowing him to overpower batters with the dueling fastballs and curve combination. Even if his walk rate climbs from where it is, power relievers can get away with the free passes, and Doubront has taken to the pen like he was meant to be there in terms of being a power reliever. Doubront has also shown himself capable of sitting right-handed hitters down, making him valuable in the way Hideki Okajima was supposed to be and Alan Embree used to be for Boston.
Doubront was not considered one of Boston’s top prospects, but he’s worked his way into the discussion of talented youngsters thanks to a strong showing at Double- and Triple-A and his stint in the Red Sox bullpen. Whether he eventually ends up in a starter role is something the Red Sox will have to determine, but in the present day, Doubront gives the Red Sox bullpen the best chance of succeeding this side of Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. With the rotation set for the near future, it should be his home from now on, which should bring a welcome sigh of relief to those of us who have been looking for a third arm out of the pen all year long.