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2023 In Review: Josh Winckowski, The Thinking Fan’s Pitcher

How big of a part will Josh Winckowski, who experienced a great improvement in 2023, play for the Red Sox in 2024?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Boston Red Sox Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

2023 In One Sentence:

Josh Winckowski overcame a slump in his debut season — and the daunting luck of being part of the Andrew Benintendi trade — to make noticeable strides in 2023, as he became one of the Red Sox’s most viable options in the bullpen.

The Positives:

For one, the fact that the young righty cut his ERA in half (from 5.89 to 2.88) is commendable. His FIP will say he was unlucky in 2022 and luckier in 2023, but he still improved from 4.95 to 3.91 there. Winckowski struck out 82 batters in 84 13 innings, an enormous climb to the tune of 3.12 more K’s per 9 innings than he tallied in 2022. When the game needed securing, it was a standard operating procedure of Alex Cora’s to call on Winck in the seventh inning before turning to the ironclad Chris Martin in the eighth and the legendary closer, Kenley Jansen, in the ninth. It was a welcome change from a 2022 bullpen that, as I stated many times in last year’s series, was among the league leaders in blown saves. Am I Billy Mays? Because that’s not all folks... Baseball Savant has him listed in the upper 15th percentile in ground ball percentage, and his fastball velocity topping out at 96.2 ranks him similarly.

But, among the most notable of his strengths is his ability to ride the hot hand and adjust to what’s working... namely, his cutter. In 2022, his cutter was his best pitch, yielding a .211 batting average, a 30% whiff rate and a run value of 2. One problem: he went to it just 11% of the time. So what did he do in 2023? He tripled its usage, and kept people guessing nonetheless, as the pitch had a run value of 7, allowed an xwOBA 100 points less than his other prominent pitch (the sinker) and the whiff rate grew. I don’t feel like attributing good things to Dave Bush at this point of time, so I will pat Winck on the back for picking a pitch that truly works and becoming a much better pitcher because of it.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox Photo Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Plus, as a fellow mustache-haver, I have to admit, he grew a sweet ‘stache.

The Negatives:

Though his strikeout rate is climbing, it’s not quite to where it needs to be yet; Savant has him at the 40 percentile. He also struggles a little bit with walks, often at the worst of times, such as, well, high-leverage situations or when there are men in scoring positions. See below.

Also, a little voice in the back of my head is reminding me that — and not that Winckowski is akin to a first-round NFL draft pick who played quarterback at Alabama — Mac Jones had one good season and one bad season in his first two years, which could be a sign that Winck’s third may be tumultuous. This is purely a vibe thing, of course.... and there are signs that Winckowski will be just fine. He just needs to strike batters out and tighten up the slider he relies on so often, as it has been getting hit much harder than his clutch cutter.

Best Moment:

Here he is dusting Jake Cronenworth on that aforementioned cutter, reaching 90 miles-an-hour to seal the game against the Padres. That Cronenworth, a VERY tough guy to strike out, swung on a pitch way outside the zone is telling of how exactly good that pitch is.

The Big Question:

Where does Winckowski fit into this pitching staff in 2024? And, uh, what’s Craig Breslow thinking?

There have been reports stating that Winckowski could be, in Craig Breslow’s mind, anyway, a guy that can be stretched out as a starter. This has been, in the last few years, famous last words for a lot of once-clutch relievers on this club. Let’s not subscribe to that, instead pretending we didn’t see that for now, because doing so and putting him in the rotation will be waving a white flag on the offseason, in my mind. Ideally, he’ll be a reliable guy Alex Cora can call upon in the seventh who elicits plenty of ground balls. Sound familiar? I don’t think his role will be much different even with the question of how the team will be utilizing guys like Tanner Houck, Isaiah Campbell, Garrett Whitlock and Nick Pivetta. Andrew Bailey being hired as the Red Sox pitching coach will be a great thing for a malleable, adaptable and intelligent pitcher like Josh Winckowski. And less strain in the form of some starting pitching (hint, hint, Craig Breslow!) will also serve Winckowski well as he learns how to be even better in higher leverage situations.

2024 And Beyond:

Josh Winckowski will be just 25 until June, so there’s plenty of room to grow. Did the Red Sox win the Benintendi trade? If you consider what my beloved outfielder did for Kansas City, I’d be tempted to say yes, because Winckowski has tremendous upside. He still only has 150 career innings pitched, but that’s in just over a season of MLB service time (though he debuted in May 2022) showing that it may worth trusting his arm if he does take up a rotation spot. He’s under team control through the end of 2028, but if he continues being an efficient learner and actively reliable pitcher, we could be talking about Winck as a mainstay in the Red Sox system for even longer than that