Felix Doubront has answered Red Sox's fans prayers in 2013.
Of all the multitude of reasons for the Boston Red Sox's turnaround in 2013, having healthy and productive stars is near the top of the list.
After missing a combined 181 games in 2012, the trio of Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury have been on the field for all but 34 games, most of which came when Ortiz started the year on the DL. And despite Clay Buchholz's perpetual woes, the other four starters have stayed largely intact.
However, stars alone can never carry a truly elite team, and that is where the Red Sox have really separated themselves from their recent past. When bench players had to fill in for stars in 2012, disaster struck. Among semi-regulars, the Sox had six position players and six pitchers who were replacement level or worse. This season, there have only been three position players and three pitchers at sub-replacement levels.
The Red Sox's overall balance was the goal of all those mid-tier offseason signings. None of Boston's acquisitions have had the sizzle of past moves like Adrian Gonzalez or Carl Crawford, but they have created more well-rounded organizational depth.
An individual's importance often gets lost in the refrain of "team play," a mantra the Sox have rallied around. But without several players outperforming expectations, the Red Sox would certainly not be in command of their own postseason destiny.
With that, here are five players whose noteworthy seasons have gone largely underappreciated.
*All stats courtesy Fangraphs.com.
Maybe it's because of his much-maligned brother, but Stephen Drew's name generally generates apathy among Red Sox fans. When José Iglesias caught fire in May and June, there were calls for Drew's job, especially after his .154 batting average at the end of April.
However, Drew has provided everything the Sox hoped for when they signed him to a modest one-year, $9.5 million contract, namely above-average offense and defense. His .246/.335/.428 slash line isn't particularly impressive, but it still exceeds the .250/.304/.358 average generated by American League shortstops.
Moreover, Drew's fielding has saved the Red Sox 4.7 runs, a huge leap from the minus-20.7 fielding average of American League shortstops. But because of Iglesias' rare defensive excellence, that valuable aspect of Drew's game also tends to get overlooked.
His game is slightly bland, as someone who possesses numerous B-minus skills is not as interesting as someone with a single A or A-plus skill, like Iglesias. But over the last 30 days, Drew has actually been Boston's third-most valuable hitter, producing the same amount of WAR as David Ortiz.
That the Sox have kept scoring without their two main offensive stars producing is an incredibly encouraging sign, and it's a testament to the consistency of those like Drew. Nonetheless, Sox fans are again looking ahead to the next big thing, namely Xander Bogaerts' arrival. But while Bogaerts undoubtedly deserves a shot at shortstop starting next season, it is Drew who provides the Sox with the best chance to win this season.
Victorino's inclusion on the list may seem a bit odd, as he has certainly gotten credit from fans who scoffed at his signing. However, perhaps because of 34 games missed to intermittent hamstring and back maladies, Sox fans do not seem to realize that Victorino has been an elite outfielder this year.
Even though Victorino does not have enough at-bats to count as a qualified hitter, he still has the ninth-highest WAR among outfielders with at least 300 at-bats. All the top-10 players have had at least 77 more at-bats this season.
But Victorino's most valuable asset is not his bat, though his 107 wRC+ does suggest an above-average hitter on a park-adjusted basis.
Indeed, part of the reason the Red Sox signed Victorino was due to Fenway Park's unique dimensions, which requires right fielders to cover as much ground as center fielders. The Sox have suffered quite a bit in that regard—over the past three years, Sox right fielders have combined to cost Boston 19 runs, and that's including Victorino's exemplary work this season.
Much like Drew, everything Victorino does is steady, though his defensive prowess does showcase a little more flair. The 32-year-old has stayed healthy for about three weeks now, and the Sox might be wise to rest him a bit to ensure his health down the stretch.
Koji Uehara has gotten most of the credit as the Red Sox's bulllpen savior, and deservedly so. Uehara has solidified the previously shaky ninth inning for Boston, indisputably the most important relief role.
However, Craig Breslow has been arguably the next important reliever in somewhat stabilizing the Sox pen. Breslow has the second-highest innings count among Red Sox relievers the past month, indicating his ascension to a high-leverage role. With Junichi Tazawa struggling due to first-half overuse, Breslow may become the team's set-up man by the postseason.
Breslow's peripherals are a bit ominous, as his 4.5 K/9 is well below his 7.4 career average, and second-lowest among qualified relievers. Moreover, the lefty's FIP and xFIP are 3.74 and 4.68 respectively, well above his respectable 2.48 ERA.
Nonetheless, the lefty does show some signs that his success is sustainable. He has significantly increased his ground-ball rate while also reducing his fly-ball rate, an important adjustment pitching in Fenway. Thus, even though hitters are making more contact than before, they are mostly being swallowed up by the Sox infield defense.
Breslow's sustainability might be a bit questionable, and it is vital that he does not regress significantly. While young pitchers like Brandon Workman and Drake Britton have impressed thus far, it is fair to question whether they could handle a late-innings role in the postseason. Breslow's ability to continue inducing bad contact is a critical factor going forward.
Quick, which of these American League lefties has put up the best park-adjusted performance against right-handed pitching: Robinson Cano, Joe Mauer or Mike Carp (hint: this is a slide about Mike Carp)?
Indeed, Carp's 160 wRC+ against righties is the 16th-highest mark in baseball among players with at least 140 plate appearances, and trails only David Ortiz on the Sox. Carp might be the best value of all the Red Sox offseason acquisitions, no small feat considering their focus this winter. When remembering that the Sox nearly kept Lyle Overbay instead, he of the 0.3 WAR, Carp's has arguably had the most surprising season of any Red Sox player.
Carp's slash line against righties is .311/.375/.593, which essentially mirrors Big Papi's overall stat line. Obviously the smaller sample size impacts that, but in an era where platooning is widely practiced, Carp's value cannot be understated.
Carp could probably draw more at-bats if Mike Napoli didn't exhibit neutral platoon splits. Napoli's sky-high 33.6 percent strikeout rate is relatively similar regardless of pitcher handedness, and has more to do with his three true outcomes approach.
But Napoli is a free agent after the season, and it's questionable as to whether the Sox will bring him back. I might be more cost-efficient to pair Carp with a right-handed bat at first base next year. Not bad for someone who many viewed as organizational depth.
If I told you at the beginning of the season that a left-handed Red Sox starter would lower his ERA by over a full point and become the team's most consistent starter, you would probably think that Jon Lester had recaptured his ace form. Instead, it's been Felix Doubront that has broken out and stabilized an occasionally shaky rotation.
Doubront has easily been the team's best regular starter, and though his WAR is a smidgen behind Clay Buchholz's, the ability to make every start certainly raises his value. Doubront isn't exactly a huge surprise, and some non-Sox observers even saw his potential before the year.
The key to the southpaw's success has been his ability to keep flyballs in the yard. Doubront's 7.1 percent HR/FB ratio is less than half of his 15.9 percent rate from 2012, leading to a 0.58 HR/9 rate that places him just outside the top 10 among qualified starters.
Whenever Buchholz does return, Doubront has performed well enough that he absolutely deserves to stick in the rotation, and probably the four-man postseason rotation as well. A staff of Buchholz (assuming he returns in reasonable form), Jake Peavy, John Lackey and Doubront could at least compete with the juggernaut rotations in Tampa and Detroit.
Lester has the experience and reputation, and he's looked brilliant at times. But Doubront carries a 15-start streak of allowing no more than 3 earned runs, the longest in 18 years by a Sox pitcher, according to Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston. The streak highlights Doubront's invaluable consistency to a rotation that has needed it so badly.
So despite some skepticism at Doubront's emergence, there is little reason not to rely on him in big games going forward.