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One Big Question: Can Garrett Whitlock keep his performance up in a different role?

His role is likely to change this year, so will that change the performance?

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MLB: Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Garrett Whitlock.

The Question: Can Garrett Whitlock maintain his 2021 success in a new role?

When Chaim Bloom was first hired to run the Red Sox front office a few years ago, one of the major factors for excitement in the fanbase was around finding diamonds in the rough for the pitching staff. Bloom was not running the Rays front office, but he was a key factor in that group that would annually find a handful of pitchers who become out-of-nowhere sensations on their pitching staff. It’s something with which the Red Sox have historically struggled. The expectations on this front were probably a bit too high, and the early attempts at this, particularly in 2020, did not work out. Then Bloom and company snatched Garrett Whitlock out of the Rule 5 Draft, and the narrative was finally starting to fit.

Now, there was some amount of luck here for the Red Sox in terms of timing, as Whitlock happened to be Rule 5 eligible while both coming off a major injury and also following the COVID-impacted 2020. The Yankees took a risk that teams wouldn’t go after a pitcher coming off a major injury who they had not seen, but Boston called the bluff and we know what happened from there. Whitlock slowly made his way up the bullpen depth chart as 2021 went along, ultimately becoming one of the two or three best pitchers on the staff regardless of role. The young righty ended the season with a 1.96 ERA over 73 13 innings, as well as a sub-3.00 FIP.

By the end of the year and in the postseason, by which point Matt Barnes had long pitched himself out of the closer role, it was Whitlock who ended up getting the most important innings on this Red Sox staff, pitching as a pure reliever. But as we look ahead to Whitlock’s second season, it’s not at all clear that he’ll be filling that role. Instead, the expectation is that he’ll start the year as rotation depth, probably pitching multiple innings in relief to start the season and perhaps ultimately becoming a nominal starter when injury and/or underperformance in the main group crops up.

There is really very little to question about Whitlock in making that transition to longer outings in the majors. He had a full arsenal with three pitches he used a lot and a fourth that could increase his usage. His peripherals were outstanding, striking out over 27 percent of his opponents while walking fewer than six percent. When batters did make contact, it was typically of the weaker variety as he finished the year safely better than average in every contact-related metric. His changeup is his best pitch, which makes him a much safer bet against left-handed batters as he transitions to a role for which it is harder for Alex Cora to play the matchups.

But even with all of that being said, you never know how a pitcher is going to make this transition. Sometimes you get Chris Sale, who started his career as a reliever in Chicago before becoming one of the two or three best pitchers in the world as a starter. Sometimes you get Daniel Bard, who was a dominant late-inning reliever before a transition to the rotation derailed his career. Whitlock has actually gotten to get some advice from Sale, which helps, but I think if you’re looking at one concern it’d be missing bats in longer outings.

Part of the reason for this is that his strikeout rate actually started to trend down towards the end of the season last year. He was still outstanding, to be clear, but Whitlock’s strikeout rate did fall below 23 percent in September, and then in the postseason it fell even lower to below 17 percent. Granted, he is obviously facing better competition in October which needs to be considered in this evaluation, but it’s worth thinking about as we watch his performance in spring and early in the regular season.

MLB: Wildcard-New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

It should also be mentioned that basically anyone is going to experience some decline in strikeout rate in moving from shorter outings to longer ones just due to the nature of being able to throw max effort in shorter stints and not being able to do so in longer outings. Whitlock can afford to lose a couple points on his strikeout rate and still be very good, especially if that elite control keeps up.

I also, however, think there can be some action taken by the young righty and his coaches to try and offset some of the issues, and that starts with utilizing his four-seamer more. This is the fourth pitch to which I alluded above, and he threw it just under 10 percent of the time last season. Instead, he leaned more heavily on his sinker, which was a great pitch and the one he used the most. I certainly wouldn’t advocate for him to ditch that offering, but if he once again leans primarily on his sinker, changeup, and slider, he’s throwing a lot of pitches down in the zone. It’d be too simplistic to say hitters could just concentrate on the lower half of the zone, but it’s also not too far off.

With the four-seamer, he’d be able to adjust eye levels more often, which again should offset some of the natural consequences of pitching in longer outings. And his changeup could be the biggest beneficiary here. It was already an elite offering, inducing whiffs on over 30 percent of swings while inducing consistently weak contact, and that’s with hitters already focusing on that part of the zone. If he’s suddenly playing it more often off of fastballs up in the zone, that should only result in more missed bats and weak contact.

Boston’s pitching staff is one with a lot of questions both in the rotation and the bullpen, which is why Whitlock is perhaps the most interesting and important arm on this staff. He figures to bounce back and forth a bit between the two roles, at least assuming relative health around the rest of the staff. It’s going to be tough for him to follow up on his impressive rookie campaign, especially while adjusting to a new role. If he can make some tweaks to his approach, I’m confident he’ll be able to make that transition smoothly and once again be one of the leaders on this staff.