Due to a host of injuries, the Red Sox starting pitching depth has really been tested this season, forcing them to turn to several prospects to take on primary roles in the starting rotation. Among them, Kutter Crawford and Josh Winckowski have pitched enough for their numbers to at least be somewhat useful to examine. Sure, Brayan Bello has also made a few starts, but are we really going to evaluate a 23-year-old potential future ace on 17 innings while he’s on the IL? Similarly, Connor Seabold has even fewer MLB innings this season and hasn’t pitched with Boston since early July. So let’s hold off on making judgments there and take a look at what we’ve seen from Crawford and Winckowski.
Crawford has easily been the best of the Red Sox rookies to make starts this season. In fact, he’s carved (or is it Karved? Or Kutt?) out a spot in the regular rotation, although that is partially due to injuries to other pitchers. Still, Crawford has been solid. He made his MLB debut in 2021, but only threw two innings in one start. This season, he’s pitched 64 ⅔ innings across 18 appearances, including nine starts, with all nine coming during the course of his last 10 outings.
Just being a warm body out on the mound isn’t all Crawford has brought to the table. He’s produced relatively solid run prevention numbers, both in terms of your traditional stats like ERA (4.18) as well as more predictive metrics like expected ERA (4.07) and FIP (3.87). In addition, while he’s not a strikeout artist by any means, his K rate is above average, sitting in the 62nd percentile in MLB, according to Baseball Savant.
In terms of his pitch makeup, the things to like have been the spin on his fastball and his slider as an overall offering. Starting with the heater, Crawford is in the 89th percentile in MLB in fastball spin, but his slider has been more valuable to some degree. Unfortunately, despite rating nicely on Baseball Savant’s run value metric compared with his other pitches, Crawford’s slider is often kept under wraps, as he has thrown it only 6.5 percent of the time, making it his least frequently used pitch. Instead, he relies more heavily on his fastball and cutter, throwing each of them more than 30 percent of the time, as well as a curveball, which has been fine and projects decently, according to FanGraphs
Unfortunately, Crawford’s fastball and curveball are not elite offerings by any means. His hook doesn’t have a ton of spin and has been merely OK this season. Meanwhile, while he gets a lot of spin on his fastball, there isn’t a lot to write home about velocity wise, as he’s usually sitting 94 to 95 miles per hour. That’s respectable, but it ranks in only the 27th percentile among MLB pitchers. In addition to his pitches still lacking a bit of excitement, Crawford has had a tendency to get barrelled a bit too much, with his 8.4 percent barrel rate allowed ranking in the bottom 30th percentile in MLB.
Aug. 2 at Houston Astros
When you put up a strong start against a team like Houston, you have to be doing something right, right? Crawford was tagged for seven hits in six innings, but he only walked one batter and struck out six while allowing a single earned run in a 2-1 Red Sox victory.
In all, Crawford has been solid and that’s been enough to make him stand out on a roster desperate for above average pitching. Making his season look even better is the fact that his work on the mound is rated similarly to that of Seattle’s Logan Gilbert and Milwaukee’s Brandon Woodruff, according to Baseball Savant. While he may be far from the peak of those guys, he’s made a strong case as a back-end rotation arm for the time being. That is probably where his future will be as well, with FanGraphs giving him a 40 future value ranking.
Winckowski has a bit more prospect pedigree than Crawford, ranking ninth in the Red Sox’s system, according to both FanGraphs and SoxProspects. Since making his MLB debut on May 28, he’s made 11 starts, accumulating 55 ⅔ innings, although his role is changing a bit now. Across those 55 innings, Winckowski has shown off a pretty solid slider and cutter, which rank as his two best pitches based on Baseball Savant’s run value. That’s not entirely surprising for the 15th-round pick right-hander, as FanGraphs gives his slide piece a 60 rating. In addition to working those two pitches pretty well, Winckowski has been good at keeping the ball on the ground, turning 51.1 percent of the batted balls he’s allowed into grounders. That would be a top 10 mark among qualified starters if he was at the inning threshold. It also carries over from his work in the minors, as he has always been a good ground ball guy who relies on his sinker.
Winckowski mostly lived up to his prospect billing during the early part of his MLB season. While he got bombed by Baltimore in his debut (four earned runs in three innings), he turned things around from there to put together a nice four-start run between June 15 and July 2, posting a 1.96 and 2.33 FIP in 23 innings combined in that stretch.
During that strong four-start span, there were storm clouds brewing, however. Winckowski has really struggled to strike batters out at the MLB level, with just a 13.9 percent K rate overall, which ranks in the bottom fifth percentile in MLB. His chase rates and whiff rates are right in that miserable ballpark as well. That lack of strikeouts hasn’t just appeared when things are going wrong, as he had only a 16.3 percent strikeout rate during that four-start period we just discussed.
The drastic fall in punchouts isn’t entirely unexpected, as Winckowski had inconsistent marks in that area in the minors, but he had a career-high 28.9 percent K rate in Triple-A last season, so the hope was he was trending in the right direction. At the least, Winckowski has not paired so few strikeouts with a lot of free passes, although his walk rate is merely middle of the road rather than stellar. So far, all the contact he’s allowing has not entirely destroyed Winckowski’s season, but it seems like it is only a matter of time because of his relatively high barrel and hard hit rates.
Lastly, Winckowski’s sinker, the pitch he throws most often and likely a big reason he gets so many ground balls, doesn’t rate super well in terms of run value this year, even as he’s gotten batters to drive the ball into the dirt more than into the air.
July 2 at Chicago Cubs
This start closed out that four-start run I keep mentioning. Technically, his second start of the season against Oakland had a better game score, but I’ll take his six inning-outing against the Cubbies when he struck out six and allowed just one earned run (two total).
Winckowski will likely be a part of the Red Sox’s rotation in the future even if he’s been demoted recently. His grounder-focused approach is a bit of a throwback, but he found success with it in the minors and if he can start getting back to a more average level of strikeouts, he has a shot to be a back-end starter at the very least, with a 45 future value, according to FanGraphs.
Note: All statistics are from before play on Aug. 17