FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Forget for a second what you think you know about Felix Doubront and focus instead on what is fact. Here's the profile:
-- He's had health problems that have limited him on the mound to about 160 innings in each of the last two years.
-- Despite some strong runs, he's produced slightly below average ERAs in each of his first full two years as a starter.
-- At this stage of his career, he has one of the best strikeout rates ever by a left-handed starter.
It's that last mention that might -- and probably should -- prompt a double take. But it's entirely true: Few left-handers at Doubront's age have ever elicited the kind of strikeout rates that he's recorded in his first two full years as a starter.
Since 1901, there have been 228 left-handed pitchers who have logged at least 250 innings between their age 24 and 25 seasons (a span in which Doubront has pitched 323 2/3 innings). Of that group, Doubront ranks sixth in strikeouts per nine innings -- behind a group that includes three multi-Cy Young winners (Johan Santana, Sandy Koufax and Clayton Kershaw, along with Sam McDowell and Oliver Perez) and ahead of a number of players with decorated careers (David Price, 9th; Gio Gonzalez, 10th; Jon Lester, 11th; Cole Hamels, 17th; CC Sabathia, 18th).
That suggests that Doubront is in possession of standout stuff that makes not just improvement but a considerable career leap forward at least a theoretical possibility. Of the pitchers with the top 20 strikeout rates at ages 24 and 25, the age 26 season -- the one for which Doubront is currently preparing -- represented a sometimes fascinating one.
Koufax became KOUFAX as a 26-year-old. Sabathia won his only Cy Young as a 26-year-old while being an innings-consuming force. Lester had arguably his most dominant year, a 2009 campaign in which he was 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA.
How common are breakouts at age 26 for pitchers in Doubront's class of strikeout left-handers? Of the left-handers with the top 20 age 24-25 strikeout rates, three will be 26 in 2014; the performance changes of the other 17 featured:
2 who cratered (a decline in ERA+ -- ERA as measured against the league average -- of 20 percent or more)
2 who suffered substantial declines (ERA+ fell 10-19 percent; one of these, however, remained Cy Young caliber (Johan Santana going from a 169 ERA+ to a 155 ERA+)
4 who remained roughly the same (ERA+ rose or fell less than 10 percent)
3 who showed substantial improvement (ERA+ rose 10-19 percent)
6 who broke out (ERA+ rose 20 percent or more)
It's a small sample but a mesmerizing distribution. The most frequent career development of 26-year-old left-handers with previously elite strikeout rates is a huge step forward in performance. Certainly, there have been pitchers like Scott Kazmir whose career went off the rails, but it's been far more common for pitchers to enjoy a massive jump in their performance at age 26.
(A caveat: Doubront is a bit of an outlier from this entire group given that, at this stage of his career, he's never had an above-average or even an average season as a starter. Virtually everyone else had an ERA+ of 100 or better -- meaning at least league average -- by the time they turned 26, sometimes before their age 24 seasons, sometimes during the age 24 and/or 25 seasons. That makes sense: Pitchers with these sorts of strikeout rates have the raw materials to be very good. But Doubront posted an ERA of 4.86 in 2012 -- good for an ERA+ of 87 -- and 4.32 in 2013 -- good for an ERA+ of 94.)
So what to make of Doubront this spring as it relates to the other known elements about his career, chiefly the fact that he's had durability problems and performed at a slightly below average level?
On the former, initial reviews from team officials about his offseason conditioning program -- sometimes an area of criticism and contention -- have been positive. Doubront said that he's gone from 228 to 238 pounds, with the added weight representing muscle, thanks to a more diligent (and supervised) offseason workout program.
A year ago at this time, it's worth recalling, he'd been shut down due to elbow soreness that was attributed to offseason work habits that were wanting. The contrast on Monday was thus striking, with the pitcher showing powerful stuff that he consistently leveraged down in the strike zone.
"Right now, it's different. I feel that I'm not worried about [health]. I'm just worried about throwing strikes," Doubront explained. "I'm not worried about the physical part of my shoulder and arm. I'm just working mentally, being more focused."
"He’s throwing the ball well," noted manager John Farrell. "He’s come into camp in better shape than years past. We look for a progression and improvement on last year. That’s ideally eliminating some of those peaks and valleys. He was on a long run from about early May for about a 16-start stretch where he was one of our more consistent starters. He’s an extremely talented guy. He’s got a couple things that really work for him: The overall pitch mix that he has, and he has shown us the ability to win on days where he doesn’t have his best stuff. I think that’s a testament to his savvy on the mound and the fact that he does generate some swing and miss."
The mid-year 16-start run Farrell referenced took place from mid-May to mid-August, when Doubront posted a 2.73 ERA while holding opponents to a .232 average and .311 OBP. The run featured something of a performance breakthrough for the left-hander, but it certainly did not feature his best stuff.
During that time, Doubront averaged roughly 90-91 mph with his four-seam and two-seam fastballs, almost never exceeding 93 mph. The previous year, he'd sat at 92-93 mph with those pitches, often topping out at 94-95 mph. With diminished stuff -- a byproduct, the Sox thought, of both his conditioning issues as well as some delivery issues -- he still managed to have what has been the best run of his career.
"I learned. I learned how to pitch. When my velocity went down, in years before I'd been a power pitcher. But I wasn't throwing hard. I wasn't throwing 95," said Doubront. "I was pitching, watching videos and being more efficient, throwing the ball down. That stuck in my mind. That's still there. Now probably this year my velocity will come back, and I'll be that power pitcher and more mentally strong. I won games last year when I didn't have my best stuff.
"Everything is getting together and this year my goal is to take last year a little bit, my best last year, when I learned how to pitch, and this year to put it together [with stuff]."
Doubront said that he feels "more powerful" now than he did last spring, but that games will offer a barometer with the radar gun. He's made some mechanical tweaks this year, adjusting the position of his hands and taking a more direct approach to the plate (moving away from his cross-body motion of the past) in an effort to simplify his delivery and improve his command.
The left-hander -- who finished the year by allowing one run in seven innings of relief in the playoffs -- said that the initial signs have been promising, that his new mechanics have made it easier for him to adjust from one pitch to the next if he misses.
If. That is the word that hovers over Doubront, a signifier of equal parts potential and uncertainty in terms of his career direction. If he can stay healthy; if he can use his new mechanics to sharpen his command; if he can regain the power that he showed in 2012 while applying the lessons he learned in 2013 . . .
There are no guarantees as he prepares for the coming year, but there is at least a sense of possibility that the still-young pitcher (he is, it's worth noting, less than a year older than Brandon Workman) has a chance to become more, perhaps considerably more, than the solid back-of-the-rotation starter that he's been over the last two years.
"I feel," he said, "like I'm close to putting everything together."