The Red Sox bullpen has been the subject of much consternation in recent weeks after the front office opted for only mid-tier additions at the deadline and the core group that was already here started to trend downhill almost immediately. It was an ill-timed confluence of events, and it was a big part of the team’s slide through most of August. And then to add insult to injury, they have lost a few key pieces over the last six weeks, mostly to the COVID list but also to traditional injury.
But the good news is some of those players are coming back and they are inching closer to full strength. Ryan Brasier joined the group for the first time this season. Josh Taylor got back from the COVID list last week. Darwinzon Hernandez made his way back from an oblique injury, rejoining the team on Friday. And now it seems Matt Barnes and Hirokazu Sawamura are working their way back from the COVID list. Even with some key players making their return, however, this is still a group very much in flux. And with every new game in the books, and the wildcard race becoming more and more crowded, the importance of each coming game only grows.
And with that growing importance, the way the team treats Garrett Whitlock moving forward is going to be one of the most interesting parts of this stretch run. With the way Barnes has pitched in the second half, it’s hard to argue against Whitlock being their most successful reliever this year. The Rule 5 pick has shocked even the most optimistic among us, pitching to a 1.86 ERA over 67 2⁄3 innings, striking out 27.5 percent of his opponents while walking only 5.4 percent. Among all relievers in baseball this year, only 14 have a higher WAR by FanGraphs’ measure, and and only two have a higher WAR by Baseball-Reference’s measure.
But the Red Sox have also been understandably cautious with their rookie righty, at least in terms of how often he’s being used. Whitlock certainly is pitching a good amount of innings for a reliever, likely on pace to end the season somewhere in the 75 inning range. But a lot of that has come as a multi-inning reliever rather than a guy who can be counted on nearly every day for one inning. This is obviously a traditional relief role, and ideally what you want from your best reliever. But Whitlock has yet to pitch on back-to-back days this season, and of his 47 appearances, 36 have come with at least two days between outings.
Like I said, it’s an understandable precaution on a couple of different fronts. For one thing, Whitlock is pitching in the majors for the first time in his career. That would be reason enough to proceed with caution in any year, but in 2021 that necessarily means he did not pitch in any affiliated games last year. And with Whitlock specifically, he also has the distinction of coming off Tommy John surgery. Even beyond that as well, the way he has pitched this year certainly makes him look like a potential long-term rotation option, so even during a pennant race that kind of future consideration at least has to be part of the thought process. And it should also be mentioned that pushing him harder could actually result in worse performances.
But on the other hand, we are in crunch time. The Red Sox are in a wildcard race that includes five teams separated by two games, all fighting for two postseason spots. Every win is at a premium, and every loss can mean the end of the season. When the team is in a position late in a game to win it, they have to come through. Blown games are just unacceptable at this point. And so, to that end, you want your best reliever available when you need him, and for most teams that means you can turn to them at least on back-to-back days, and perhaps on three consecutive days, though even I probably wouldn’t suggest that for Whitlock.
The ideal scenario for the Red Sox, of course, is that Adam Ottavino gets a little more consistent down the stretch and Matt Barnes returns from his time off pitching like he did in the first half. In that scenario, Whitlock is just one of a trio that can be counted on late in games, and while he could still probably pitch more he wouldn’t be relied upon as the clear top arm in the unit. But it’s hard to count on that right now, and the team has to at least be thinking about what their plan is if that doesn’t come to fruition.
Speaking for myself, I don’t really have a strong feeling for one path over the other. There are merits to both, and it’s up to the organization to determine what the value the most right now. My assumption is that they’ll be more cautious than aggressive, as that’s how they’ve played every situation this season. And that could very well be the best choice! If Whitlock does become a key member of this rotation for the next half-decade, then it’ll be hard to argue with that path. But in the short-term, if the other relievers don’t step up, it could also mean finishing this season on the outside looking in.