I like to think almost every player serves some purpose in the grand scheme of things; call me optimistic. I ignore Kutter Crawford’s command because the stuff could play. I was the first person to defend Franchy Cordero because he could have been an all-star if he stopped whiffing so much. Just last week, I wrote about how good Chris Sale could be, even after he surrendered seven earned.
Yet, despite my rampant optimism, I was never very drawn to Josh Winckowski. I never felt like he had one above-average skill he could build around to become a really solid major leaguer. He doesn’t have Kutter Crawford’s fastball “rise”, Chris Sale’s slider movement, or Franchy Cordero’s biceps. To me, Winckowski was nothing more than a spot starter/long relief type who can give you some innings at the bottom of your roster. But as Jen McCaffrey of The Athletic wrote on Monday, Winckowski spent the off-season rebuilding himself and is a totally different pitcher. Let’s look a little more in-depth at the changes the righty made to catch my eye and become a key piece of the Red Sox bullpen.
(Left: 2022, Right: 2023)
The most apparent change Winkowski made over the offseason was to revamp his mechanics. It’s not a major change, but he did add a windup to the beginning of his delivery. I won’t pretend to be an expert in pitching mechanics, but Winckowski said it helps with his consistency, and it appears to have changed his release point for the better:
Just noticed Winckowski has one of the biggest increases in release extension so far this season, releasing the ball 5" closer to the plate.— Red Sox Stats (@redsoxstats) April 11, 2023
2022: 93.9 mph, 94.3 perceived mph
2023: 95.3 mph, 96.1 perceived mph
Throwing the ball harder is typically a good thing. Josh Winckowski is throwing the ball harder. His fastball, sinker, and slider are each averaging about 1.5 MPH more than in 2022. That could be a product of effort, as a bullpen role requires less sustained stamina, or it could be a result of off-season work. Either way, we’ll take it.
Outside of the additional velocity, Winckowski made some tweaks to his offspeed pitches to alter the shapes. They’re small samples, but pitch shapes shouldn’t change too much over the course of the season, barring some major breakthrough or an injury. He added a little more glove-side movement to his slider and a little more arm-side run to his changeup. Minor tweaks, but both in the direction you would hope for. It’s a game of inches, or something.
The major change here, and the key to Winckowski’s newfound success, is the cutter. He’s altered his pitch mix to feature his cut fastball about 25% of the time, while moving away from his four-seamer and changeup. The cutter is also virtually a new pitch. This year, he’s added both depth and run to the pitch. Take a look:
Left: 2022, Right: 2023
As you can see, the new cutter moves a little more in both directions. It’s not a swing-and-miss pitch, but it does play off the slider well. It has a very similar spin direction to the slider but less drop, giving it that “late life” effect that you always hear about. The cutter is much more similar to his slider than the old pitch, making both pitches much more effective.
Winckowski has found a new home in the Red Sox bullpen, at least temporarily, and he’s making the most of the opportunity. Between the more consistent mechanics, increased velocity, and improved pitch mix, the right-hander has the chance to be an important piece for the Red Sox going forward. Developing pitchers has been a weak spot over the last several years, and optimizing pitch shapes and ratios is the new big thing in player development. Perhaps the work done with Winckowski this off-season represents an improvement in that department.