The Red Sox have a bullpen problem. This is not a new revelation that I am bringing up out nowhere, of course, as the latest bit of evidence to this point was put into the world on Wednesday when the group blew yet another save, exploding in the late innings in a 10-6 loss to the Angels in what should have been a win with the way Garrett Whitlock pitched to start. Many, many people pointed out before the season that the Red Sox just did not have any real top-end talent in their bullpen before the season, and with four blown saves this season (no other team has more than two) we are seeing those concerns come to fruition in practice. It’s frustrating to see something so many could see as a problem be ignored, and then become that problem.
Right now, there is no go-to guy in the bullpen, whether you want to call it a closer or bullpen ace or whatever else. The fact is, right now Alex Cora is playing matchups on a night-to-night basis, which can work in theory but in practice is often just a sign that there are no great pitchers and the manager needs to find any advantage they can find. And to be clear, it can work. We saw early in the season that guys like Hansel Robles, Jake Diekman, and Matt Strahm were teaming up to do the job late in games. But it’s also a thin margin of error, and we see stretches like we see now when winnable games are lost. In a division as competitive as this AL East, the Red Sox just can’t afford that. It’s a time like this when a team desperately needs someone they can turn to and trust no matter the matchup.
Garrett Whitlock is the popular choice here, largely due to his success in this role in big games down the stretch and in the postseason last season. It’s hard to argue with that logic, and I have little doubt that he would solve this problem. That said, I do actually disagree with the idea. Instead, I’d be turning to another sort-of starter to fill that role: Tanner Houck.
But I’ll start with the Whitlock piece of this, because honestly it is just as important, if not more so, than anything to do with Houck himself. Simply put, Whitlock has shown me enough to make me confident that he can not only be a solid starter, but a very good one. He still needs to build up some strength — his velocity dip in the fifth on Wednesday proved costly, for example — but he has the mindset and pitch mix to dominate in this role and be a legitimate top-of-the-rotation arm if things continue to develop as they have. As starters’ outings get shorter and bullpens get bigger, there’s an argument that a good reliever is as valuable, if not more valuable, than even a borderline mid-rotation starter. The same is not true for a top-end starter, which Whitlock can be. The time is now to continue letting him grow in that role, bullpen be damned. That helps the team right now in giving them another stable starting option, and it certainly helps in the future as he hopefully anchors this rotation for years to come.
Houck, meanwhile, is a bit of a different case. To be clear, I do not think it is a forgone conclusion that he cannot succeed in the rotation. We’ve seen him do quite well in that role! At the same time, we’ve also seen him as a starter more than Whitlock, and we’ve seen that he still is struggling to consistently incorporate his third pitch, and continue to struggle getting the coaching staff’s confidence for the third time through the order. He fits more into the borderline mid-rotation arm to me, and thus makes sense as a reliever.
And on top of that, he simply has the stuff that you are looking for in a late-inning reliever. There’s no one-size-fits-all for any role in baseball, but it’s been proven in the modern game that the easiest recipe for success in the late innings is pairing a big fastball — and Houck has two of those — with a sweeping breaking ball. Houck’s slider, at its best, is up there with just about anyone’s in the game. His splitter can still be used from time to time, but the importance of incorporating it decreases in this role. And while he does have some command lapses here and there, it’s not to the same extent as the current late-inning options. I’m pretty confident he’d immediately be the best late-inning option as soon as he was allowed to take that role and run with it.
Now, this is not to say there are no negative side effects to this. The main one, as the roster is comprised right now, is that with Whitlock in the rotation and Houck in a late-inning role, there is no piggy back option for Rich Hill, who doesn’t seem likely to go more than four innings most every time out. It’s a problem, but one I’m willing to create for the possibility of filling the hole in the late innings. (It’s also an argument for why targeting a starting pitcher with such a short leash is an inefficient choice for a bullpen as shallow as Boston’s.) They could move Kutter Crawford into that role, or they could call up someone like Connor Seabold or Josh Winckowski to take that role. They could also move Hill to the bullpen as well, turning to someone like Seabold for that fifth starter job until one of Chris Sale or James Paxton is ready. There are ways to mitigate the piggy back problem, which again is a smaller deal than the most important innings of the game.
To be clear, the Red Sox problems do not come solely down to the bullpen. They get the bulk of the blame for Wednesday, but even then the offense had chances to add more runs on and didn’t, which has been a problem all season as well. Fortunately, my adult brain is able to comprehend multiple issues at once. Make no mistake, the late innings is a problem. Moving Whitlock back to the bullpen would fix that problem, but also hurt the rotation both now and in the future. Instead, in my mind the move is to convert Houck to the late innings full-time and let him pitch the most important innings, not attach him to Hill’s starts and take him out of commission for more than half of the team’s games.