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2022 in Review: Garrett Whitlock Does It All

Whitlock was solid as a starter and great as a reliever, but maybe it’s time to officially pick a lane for the 26-year-old right-hander.

Texas Rangers v Boston Red Sox Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2022 Boston Red Sox in Review series. We’re changing things up a bit this year. For this series, we will only be including players on the active roster, per FanGraphs’ RosterResource page, who had at least 50 plate appearances or 20 innings pitched at the MLB level in 2022. That means no pending free agents or players on the 40-man but not on the MLB roster, with a couple exceptions. These will be rolling out over the next few months, so stay tuned. Today, we will take a look at Garrett Whitlock’s 2022 campaign.

2022 in One Sentence

The Red Sox still seemed uncertain about whether they wanted Garrett Whitlock to be a starter or a reliever, but whenever he was on the mound, he was great, even if his health didn’t always cooperate.

The Positives

In just two short years since the Red Sox rescued him from the the waiver wire (and the New York Yankees), Garrett Whitlock has become a pillar of the Red Sox’s pitching staff and one of the most promising arms in the entire organization. However, for someone with such cache, he still hasn’t solidified a role. But with the versatility to start, pitch middle relief, close games, or anything in between, Whitlock is an incredible pitcher to have on the roster, as he once again proved in 2022.

The 26-year-old right-hander started the year coming out of the bullpen, but he eventually moved into the starting rotation at the end of April, starting nine games before moving back into a bullpen role in the middle of July after returning from a month-long absence due to a hip injury. Across the entire season, he logged 78 13 innings across 31 appearances, often giving Alex Cora someone who could take down a couple of frames at a time out of the bullpen. Interestingly, Whitlock ended up contributing nearly identical innings totals as both a starter (39) and a reliever (39 13).

Through the back-and-forth between the rotation to the relief corps, Whitlock produced a solid 3.45 ERA and 3.29 FIP, but there was a clear difference between Whitlock the starter and Whitlock the reliever. In relief situations, he had better marks in strikeout rate (29.9 percent vs. 23.2 percent), walk rate (4.1 percent vs. 5.5 percent) and FIP (2.99 vs. 3.60), among other metrics. However, while his performance as a reliever certainly surpassed his efforts as a starter, it’s not like he was bad in the latter role.

Whitlock’s most apparent strengths, both when he was starting and relieving, came in his ability to limit free passes and extend in his delivery, while his strikeout work was solid if not show-stopping. In terms of walk rate, Whitlock ranked in the 91st percentile in MLB, while he was in the 99th percentile in extension, which Baseball Savant defines as “how far off the mound, in feet, a pitcher releases the pitch,” matching his finish from last season. Speaking of his delivery, Whitlock’s release point increased dramatically in 2022, as shown in the graph below. This will be worth keeping an eye on next season, particularly if it indicates a long-term change in his mechanics.

Baseball Savant

Whitlock continued to rely on the same three-pitch arsenal as he did in 2021. While he did throw an occasional four-seamer, his bread-and-butter offerings were once again his sinker, changeup, and slider. Whitlock threw his sinker even more than usual this season (59.3 percent of the time) and while it was a bit less effective than last year, it was still an elite offering based on run value. Whitlock also made drastic improvements with his changeup, which went from a neutral run value to a -4 run value this past season.

The Negatives

The simplistic way to go about this section would be to just look at Whitlock’s ERA, which jumped from 1.96 in 2021 to 3.45 in 2022. Of course, basing the analysis of an entire season just on ERA would be pretty foolish, but it does show that some things didn’t go Whitlock’s way; and when you peel back more of the layers, amidst the positives we just discussed, there are certainly some issues. Not all of them were within Whitlock’s control, of course, including the issues with his right hip that cost him most of June and half of July and caused the Red Sox to shut him down in September.

Such a lingering injury certainly didn’t do Whitlock’s full-season production any favors, and it’s tough to know what parts of his game suffered directly because of it, but there were some areas where he regressed from his stellar debut campaign in 2021 all the same.

For starters, Whitlock also lost quite a bit of bite on his slider, as batters had a .382 wOBA against the pitch after managing just .236 last year. Such a change of fortune was particularly costly for Whitlock’s strikeout production, as his slider is his best out pitch when he has it working. Even during this season, his strikeout rate with his slider was 42.3 percent, while his rates with his other pitchers were in the 20s.

Cleveland Guardians v Boston Red Sox Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

While his slider, well, slid, Whitlock was hit harder overall, as his barrel rate nearly doubled to eight percent, putting him in the bottom half of the league. His average exit velocity went up a full mile-per-hour as well, and his hard hit rate went up nearly two percent. Compounding the issue, opposing batters also got the ball in the air more frequently against Whitlock this season, with his fly ball rate going from 30.5 percent in 2021 to 39 percent this past season. When you combine more flyballs with better contact, it’s no wonder he was tagged for a few more home runs than a year ago (10 vs. 6), even if he only threw five more innings overall.

Adding fuel to the make Whitlock a full-time reliever argument, the right-hander also had trouble when facing batters for a second time in a game, which, as you might expect, mostly happened in his starting opportunities. Often breezing through the lineup the first time (2.20 FIP), Whitlock had a 5.15 FIP when facing batters the second time through the order. Although he had starts where he overcame those difficulties, it ultimately meant he struggled to eat up too many frames, only surpassing five innings twice in his nine starts.

Best Game or Moment

It’s always an absolute treat to watch Whitlock shut down the Yankees, a team that (and stop me if you’ve heard this before) let him go on waivers. On Aug. 12, Whitlock provided such a display, as he carved up the Yankees’ lineup in the ninth and tenth innings to help the Red Sox rally for a 3-2 walkoff win in extra innings. He then followed that performance up with a scoreless ninth inning two days later to close out a 3-0 win.

The Big Question

Can Garrett Whitlock keep his performance up in a different role?

Before this season, it wasn’t clear how the Red Sox would use Whitlock throughout 2022, and the answer ended up being in a lot of different ways, but mostly out of the bullpen. While some of his production certainly took a dip, Whitlock was still very good overall, even if he didn’t work in his four-seamer more or ultimately take over a full-time starting gig.

2023 and Beyond

There’s only so much anyone can do about health, so while Whitlock’s ability to recover from his hip injury and avoid other maladies next season will ultimately determine the tenor of his campaign, it would probably help if the Red Sox committed to a path for him. How the Red Sox add to the roster this winter will likely have a major influence on how they make that call, but Whitlock’s shown he can be an exceptionally elite reliever and a solid starter, so there isn’t really a wrong answer. Heck, letting him do a little bit of everything may actually be the right move for all I know.

Ultimately, it seems like the Red Sox might be leaning toward using him as a reliever. His numbers were better in that role last season and they didn’t put him in the starting rotation after he missed time due to injury. However, perhaps the injury played into that decision-making, with the team not wanting to put too much strain on him. Whatever the case, the good news is since Whitlock put pen to paper on a four-year contract extension last spring, the Red Sox have all the more incentive to put him in the best position to excel.