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A case for putting Garrett Whitlock in the rotation

It’s possible that the long-term rotation workhorse solution is already in the backyard.

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Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

“Whitlock is a guy I’ll be paying a lot of attention to. Wait until you come down here and you see him.”

It was February 20 when Alex Cora made that statement, among others, about Garrett Whitlock. The @redsoxstats account on Twitter reminded us of that quote numerous times throughout the year. In addition, Cora praised the rookie’s bullpen sessions, and the way he acts and he takes care of himself, before saying, “He knows what he wants to do and I’m looking forward to seeing him pitch and where he takes us.” It’s unclear if Cora anticipated being taken to the ALCS nearly eight months later, with Whitlock on the mound for the final outs of each matchup that got him there. Whitlock locked down the final three outs in the Wild Card Game against the same New York Yankees who left him off their 40-man roster last December, before throwing the final six outs (on 15 pitches) and getting the win against the Tampa Bay Rays in the game four ALDS walkoff clincher.

Whitlock, the 18th round selection by the Yankees out of UAB in 2017, was on a starter’s path through the organization, throwing 120 23 innings in 2018 and reaching Double-A by season’s end. Of that workload, 70 innings came at High-A, where he was 5-3 with a 2.44 ERA and 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings to go along with 3.5 walks per nine. Whitlock then made 14 starts at Double-A in 2019, pitching to a 3.07 ERA before having his season shut down in July and undergoing Tommy John Surgery later that month.

We all know where the story goes from there, as the Boston Red Sox plucked him out of New York in the Rule 5 Draft last offseason. As Chris Cotillo explained, they had watched his rehab unfold on Instagram, from his first throwing session post-surgery all the way to full-strength bullpens in late 2020. Per Rule 5 requirements, Whitlock would need to stay on the major-league roster for the entire season in order to be retained long-term. What an inconvenience that was.

In 2021, Whitlock made 46 relief appearances totaling 73 13 innings. Of the 196 pitchers who threw at least 70 innings, only three pitchers in the entire league had a better ERA than Whitlock’s 1.96: Jacob deGrom, Ranger Suarez, and Andrew Kittredge. If ERA isn’t your thing, he excelled in many other areas as well.

Whitlock Rankings for P with 70+ IP

Category Output Rank (of 196)
Category Output Rank (of 196)
K% 27.2% 42
BB% 5.7% 38
K-BB% 21.5% 23
Ground Ball % 49.7% 40
FB Velo 96.0 MPH 25
HR/9 0.74 22
ERA 1.96 4
WHIP 1.10 46
Garrett Whitlock rankings for P with 70+ IP in 2021 Fangraphs

The WHIP of 1.10 was 46th best in the league, but the only two pitchers with a better WHIP who allowed a higher BABIP (batting average on balls in play) than Whitlock’s .304 were Gerrit Cole (.305 BABIP) and Corbin Burnes (.309 BABIP). Simply put, 2021 wasn’t the greatest season to be a ground ball pitcher on the Red Sox.

From a Statcast perspective, Whitlock was in the top-10 percentile in several metrics. For pitchers who allowed a minimum of 150 balls in play, his Barrels allowed were 12th best out of 304 pitchers (4.1% Barrels/Batted Ball and 2.7% Barrels/PA). The .266 xWOBA allowed was 22nd best. Just a reminder that these were outputs from a rookie who hadn’t thrown a pitch in a game of any kind since July of 2019.

2022: Time to up the ante?

As we look forward, the future of Garrett Whitlock could go a few different directions:

Long Man: Whitlock was wildly valuable in the long-man role in 2021. 32 of his 46 appearances were of the multi-inning variety and he entered with at least one runner on base in 13 of them. There were seven games in which he entered in the fifth inning or earlier, and 11 games that he entered in the eighth inning or later. On the whole, Garrett Whitlock entered the game to get the biggest “non-closer” outs, regardless of inning, and likely stuck around for a second inning, before getting the subsequent day off (only pitching on consecutive days once the entire regular season). In 2022, the Red Sox could easily decide that this worked once, so why fix what isn’t broken? There may only be one spot available to begin the season and Tanner Houck has started games before.

Closer: In short, the Red Sox don’t necessarily have one for 2022 at the moment. Matt Barnes is entering the first year of his two-year extension, but after being left off the playoff roster there is no guarantee of anything. Of course, they could sign a high-leverage relief pitcher after the lockout ends to change that. Whitlock was the de facto closer in the playoffs, “finishing” multiple wins even though the team did not record a single postseason save. In his second season back from surgery, the team may be more apt to let him pitch on consecutive days. The Red Sox never planned on Jonathan Papelbon being their closer either. Sometimes the right opportunity presents itself at the right time.

Starter: After the team selected Whitlock in the Rule 5 Draft, Red Sox vice president of professional scouting Gus Quattlebaum said, “All things are trending upwards. He’s on a normal progression leading into this upcoming season. We’re really excited to land someone that we think has upside as a potential starter, or at a minimum can assume some volume either out of the pen or as a starter.” While there are plenty of examples of two-pitch pitchers who have succeeded throughout MLB, those pitches need to be outstanding with such little room for error. Whitlock’s three-pitch repertoire has me as a firm believer that this is his best path to success long-term.

Evolution to a Three-Pitch Pitcher

Entering the 2021 season, Baseball America described Whitlock’s main weapons as the “low-to-mid 90s fastball and a hard-darting slider,” along with a “changeup in the low-to-mid 80s, but the pitch lags behind his fastball and slider.” Fast forward to spring training 2021 where Whitlock played catch frequently with Matt Andriese. As Rob Bradford wrote, Andriese knew the pitch had potential but he talked with Whitlock daily about arm speed and mentality of the changeup. All of a sudden, the third pitch that “lagged behind” was his second-most used pitch, with a 13 MPH separation from his fastball.

Whitlock 2021 Pitch Usage

Pitch Velocity Usage
Pitch Velocity Usage
Sinker/Fastball 96.0 62.9%
Changeup 83.1 20.6%
Slider 83.8 16.5%
Garrett Whitlock Pitch Velocity & Usage 2021 Baseball Savant

Whitlock’s changeup allowed only a .185 BA against on the season. As teams began looking for the fastball and changeup, the slider began to evolve. Also from Bradford in June, “We were trying to get the pitch harder,” Whitlock said. “Before I was more worried about the movement instead of speed and movement. Now we’re implementing both of those things.” From June on, Whitlock used the slider more frequently, while also increasing the velocity on the pitch up to 86 mph by September, three ticks ahead of the changeup.

Garrett Whitlock 2021 Slider Velocity by Month
Baseball Savant

How will the puzzle pieces fit?

As we sit through a frustrating lockout, this (lengthy) snapshot in time shows a roster that still has a lot up in flux, including the rotation. Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Sale, and Nick Pivetta all have a safe role, with Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, Tanner Houck, and Whitlock as possibilities for the two remaining spots. Eovaldi and Sale are a perfectly viable 1-2, but Pivetta is best as a number four starter with 2021’s 4.53 ERA being the best of his career.

Until James Paxton returns from Tommy John surgery for the stretch run, the team needs a number three, and I keep coming back to Whitlock’s name in that spot for 2022, with a higher ceiling possible in subsequent years. I could foresee a spring training battle for rotation spots where Whitlock clearly distances himself from some of the veterans. Perhaps Houck’s splitter emerges as a true, sustainable third pitch and he runs with a rotation spot, but the team was very hesitant to allow him to throw to hitters the third time through this past year. Maybe even both of these young arms grab spots and the team uses a hybrid six-man rotation at times. With Eovaldi entering free agency in 2023, it would be essential to know if one or more long-term rotation arms are already on the roster.

I have always been of the mindset that I would rather have 150-200 innings from a quality pitcher capable of starting than 60-70 innings. Whitlock has been brought up through the minor leagues as a starting pitcher and has the pitch repertoire to support a starting role. With the bases empty, he pitches out of the wind-up like an old school starter. His Trackman metrics, which us plebeians don’t have access to, allegedly show some of the best extension in all of baseball, with the 6’5” Whitlock releasing the ball as close to home plate as almost anyone in the league. His efficiency in pitches thrown (15.68 per inning) should translate to someone who can get the six innings for that elusive “quality start”. He even took one of the prettiest swings I saw from an American League pitcher all year on June 15 in Atlanta for his first career hit, a homecoming for Whitlock after growing up in Georgia. Watch it here, a left-handed swing, despite Baseball Reference and Fangraphs curiously listing him as a right-handed hitter.

Including the 8 13 playoff innings, Whitlock threw 81 23 innings in 2021. As the Red Sox did in year one post-surgery, there are ways to protect the man’s arm without being reckless. A reasonable workload for comparison is Freddy Peralta of the Brewers, who threw 96 2/3 innings in 2019 (85 of those innings at the big-league level). After the short 2020 season, Milwaukee gave the 25-year-old Peralta 27 starts in 2021, totaling 144 1/3 innings. Excluding one relief appearance, Peralta averaged 5.27 innings per start. This is the exact range that I would like to see Whitlock settle in for 2022. With the aforementioned pitching depth that the team has focused on in free agency, there should be options to spell him with extra rest, a skipped start here and there, and, of course, the Phantom 10-Day IL.

Between the stuff, command, repertoire, makeup, composure, and, most importantly, results to date, I’m planting my flag on the Garrett Whitlock rotation experiment. Whether that happens this April, July, or next year, “Wait until you see him.”