We’re not even a week into the season, so it goes without saying that there is not anything approaching “must-win” games at this point in the season, even if it can sometimes feel that way in the moment when the Red Sox are not feeling well. But even must-win or not, Tuesday’s win against the Tigers was sweet, in part because the offense finally started to break out a bit towards the end of the afternoon. On top of that we saw the platonic ideal of what Garrett Whitlock can provide this team in his sort unique role that the team has him set for, at least to start the season. The 2021 breakout Rule 5 selection finished out the game with four scoreless innings for Boston, allowing walk without allowing a hit. It’s natural to wonder after seeing that kind of performance what exactly he can provide in the coming months.
It goes without saying that whatever the plan is, Whitlock needs to be pitching important innings as much as possible as he is clearly one of the best pitchers on the team, full stop. I suppose there’s even an argument for the best, though I’m not really interested in diving into that question right now. In 2021, had a sub-2.00 ERA last season and a FIP that didn’t exceed that mark by all that much. This year, he’s come out showing nothing has changed, still boasting the same disgusting arsenal that leads to so much weak contact, misses bats, and manages to stay in the zone all at the same time. Someday in the not-too-distant future he’s going to be a starter, and my guess is a very good one.
The thing is, for reasons both short-term and long, they aren’t going to want to push him this year with a full starter’s workload. Remember, we’re talking about a pitcher who has still only pitched one season since undergoing Tommy John surgery, and he only threw 73 1⁄3 innings in 2021. Well, plus another 8 1⁄3 in the postseason, but they are of course hoping for more postseason innings for him this year as well. They want him to stay healthy all year because of how important he is, so they won’t want to push him beyond his limits early on. And of course, he’s a big part of the long-term picture, even more so after signing his recent extension. Whitlock will and should see an innings increase this season, but the smart move is probably to aim more for the 120 inning range rather than the 180 a regular starter would be seeking.
So that brings us back to what we saw from him on Tuesday, finishing out a close game with four innings, both giving his team a chance to come back and take a lead, and then holding that lead. This is the sort of thing that theoretically he can do all season, hitting that roughly 120 inning mark while pitching almost entirely important innings. Again speaking in theory, Whitlock could be utilized every three to four games, roughly twice every turn through the rotation, aiming for three innings each time. Simple math would put that right around 120 innings, and in fact that is what happened the first time through, as he has 6 1⁄3 innings over two appearances thus far.
Of course, I emphasized that we were speaking theoretically here because that is all much easier said than done for a variety of reasons. You can set up whatever schedule you want, but part of being a valuable reliever is being ready to go when needed. If it’s been five days since he’s pitched and you’ve been in three straight blowouts, do you use him for one of those games or keep pushing him back until you get an important outing? It also goes without saying that he’s not going to be this good every time out, getting through those four innings on Tuesday with under 40 pitches. That kind of efficiency can’t be counted on.
Still, the fact that these kinds of outings are possible, and something we are almost certainly going to see more of, is a huge boon for a Red Sox pitching staff that has so many questions. They are going to need creativity and hidden value to be a net positive as a unit, and Whitlock can provide that. I still think he’s ultimately a starter, and that he will probably end the season in that role. But again, they’ll need to time that right to make sure he’s not over-exerting himself, harming both his ability to contribute this year and perhaps his ceiling for years down the road. While they wait for the right time to make that switch with Whitlock, though, they can achieve their preservation goals while also getting some of the most unique individual bullpen value that can be found in all of baseball right now.