The education of Allen Webster

February 17, 2014 - 5:06 am

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A year ago, spring training represented a spectacular coming-out party for Allen Webster. The right-hander, who had been acquired by the Sox from the Dodgers in August 2012, displayed a pitch mix that was virtually unmatched in the Red Sox organization, firing mid- to high-90s fastballs with sink while getting swings and misses with his changeup (his best secondary pitch), slider and even his curveball. Those were the raw materials of potential dominance, particularly given that he showed the ability to throw strikes on a fairly consistent basis once he implemented some subtle mechanical alterations. But while Webster validated his strong spring training impressions in the first month of the year, going 1-0 with a 2.57 ERA with 11.3 strikeouts and 2.3 walks per nine in six starts split between Triple-A Pawtucket and one big league outing, his season went off the rails starting with an early-May start against the Twins in which he yielded eight runs in just 1 2/3 innings. There were flashes of promise but also some alarming developments, chiefly the inability to command his fastball against righties, resulting in a drastic spike in his walks totals (4.5 per nine innings) and hit batters (1.2 per nine innings). When he did throw strikes, he missed over the middle of the plate, resulting in frequent homers (7 in 30 1/3 big league innings, along with a career-worst 0.8 per nine innings in the minors). As his results suffered, his confidence seemed to take a hit as well, with Webster often looking like a picture of uncertainty. Mindful of that, the Sox asked him to pitch in the Dominican during the winter for two reasons. First, they wanted to bump up his innings total. With his five winter league starts, Webster ended up making 33 starts in 2013 while logging a career-high 153 innings, a total that means he will face no late-season innings limits in 2014. Secondly, the team wanted to expose him to a challenging environment, hoping that exposure to baseball in another culture might improve his foundation for success back in the U.S. in 2014, with the exposure to pitching in an environment of considerable intensity and unfamiliarity in another country helping to prepare him for the major league spotlight. On the mound, Webster went 1-0 with a 6.11 ERA, 15 strikeouts and 10 walks in his 17 2/3 innings in the Dominican. But he did not yield a homer and got a ton of groundballs, a critical sign for his potential success. But the significance of his time went beyond his winter league numbers. "It was good. It was experience. Just being in a different country, seeing things I wouldn't expect to see, like donkeys pulling banana carts up the road, I wasn't expecting that," Webster chuckled. "[The fans] were into the game a lot. They were loud." The benefit of spending more time on the mound and thinking about his craft went beyond cultural for Webster. The right-hander had time to think about what had gone wrong during his mid-season struggles to command and to gain a greater understanding of what he needed to do in order to be effective against hitters at the highest levels, suggesting that he learned "how consistent I have to be at the upper levels, knowing you can't make mistakes and fall behind batters -- you won't get away with it. "I know [my stuff] definitely plays [in the big leagues], but it doesn't play from behind in the count. I have to get ahead first before I can think of getting batters out," he added. "Just commanding my fastball consistently -- if I command it consistently, my other stuff plays along behind it really easily." Webster said that he lost command of his fastball to righties -- letting it sail up and in -- because he "wasn't getting behind the ball," instead releasing it from too far back to locate. Now, he believes he's made the adjustment to be able to correct that offering should it go astray in the future. With that realization, Webster is hopeful that he can make the same sort of impressions in spring training this year that generated so much buzz last season. Though he struggled in the big leagues, manager John Farrell suggested that the right-hander accomplished plenty in 2013 -- his first exposure to Triple-A, let alone the majors -- upon which he can build. "If you look at the year he had in Triple A, I think a lot of what we recognize is OK, he came up [to the big leagues], he had some challenges, much like any first year pitcher would have, but if we were looking at Allen Webster walking into this camp coming off the year he had solely in Triple-A, you'd say, wow, this is another major step towards another very good major league pitcher," said Farrell. "He went through some challenges last year for the first time, and it doesn't taint our feel for what his capabilities are." His capabilities . . . Webster has as high of a ceiling as anyone in the Sox organization, but questions loom about whether he possesses the command or confidence to hit that ceiling. But the talent is such that the Sox are comfortable letting his development play out, to see what he might ultimately become. This spring offers a new chance to start making that determination.