Photo via CBS Boston
Dave Roberts may have some competition for “best steal” in Red Sox history. In the First Round of the 2020 Rule 5 draft, with the 4th selection the Red Sox chose 24 year old pitcher Garrett Whitlock from the New York Yankees. At the time it was considered a “risky” move with Whitlock coming off of Tommy John surgery in 2019 and spending all of 2020 recovering from the procedure. For some background, the Yankees drafted Whitlock out of Alabama-Birmingham in the 18th round of the 2017 MLB June Draft. Over 3 seasons in the minors he posted a 2.41 ERA, 1.16 WHIP over 205.1 innings. He also averaged 8.8 strikeouts and 2.6 walks per nine innings. As a Rule 5 pick, Whitlock needed to spend the entire 2021 season on the active major league roster (barring an injured list stint) or be offered back to the Yankees for $50,000. Not exactly a given with him never pitching above AA and coming off an extensive arm surgery. He was expected to be a “bulk man” out of the bullpen entering Spring Training, with him and Matt Andriese filling the familiar long man/spot starter roles that Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez filled so effectively during the championship 2018 season. In an offseason full of free agent signings and trades, a Rule 5 pick wasn’t exactly on the radar for being a decisive move. Whitlock was expected to fall more in line with 2019 Rule 5 pick Jonathan Arauz’s 2020 season. Arauz spent the entire 60-game season on the MLB roster, getting 17 starts and 39 total at bats. Something similar for Whitlock in 2021 would have been a few spot starts, and mostly bulk innings when the team was way behind or way ahead. My own projections had him starting 7 games, pitching 85 total innings with a 4.54 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP. Basically an average season with some promise that he could get healthy and pitch some innings to get him ready to compete for a permanent spot in the 2022 Sox rotation.
The narrative started to change in Spring Training however. He pitched 9 innings over 4 games, with a 1.00 ERA, 0.889 WHIP, 12 strikeouts and no walks down in Fort Myers. The excellent results were attributed to a couple changes. There was a small uptick in his fastball velocity. Where his fastball used to sit 90-93mph, he’s now averaging 95mph with it. The second and probably more significant change was with Whitlock’s changeup. At one point while playing catch, Andreise started talking with Whitlock about his changeup. Andreise proposed changing how Whitlock was using the pitch, and suggesting some tweaks to Whitlock’s approach and arm speed. Those subtle changes created a brand new weapon for Whitlock. What was considered a fringe-average changeup, has become his most lethal pitch. He’s thrown the changeup 33% of the time, getting 10 swings and misses on 39 changeups. The improvement to his changeup has led to him posting some dominant stats so far this season. In 4 appearances, Whitlock has a 0.00 ERA and 0.333 WHIP with 11 strikeouts and no walks in 9 total innings. Cora has praised Whitlock’s performance so far, and has used him in higher leverage situations to challenge him. On April 8th Whitlock was warming up with the Sox down 3-2 to the Orioles. Even after the Sox scored 2 runs in the 6th, Whitlock was still brought in to hold the lead, which he did for 2 innings, earning him his first Major League Hold.
So far, Whitlock has been used mainly in middle relief to cover some innings after some early starting pitcher exits and to give the bullpen some extra rest. However there is now talk of Whitlock getting stretched out more, to cover longer outings. While he’s not needed in the rotation at the moment, the injury history of the Sox current starters is pretty lengthy, so there’s always the chance fill-ins could be necessary. While Tanner Houck continues to impress in every chance he’s given, Whitlock may get some spot starts as well. For now the team is going to be watching Whitlock’s innings very carefully, as they don’t want to overwork his arm after almost 2 years off recovering from the TJ surgery. Personally, I’m just glad the Red Sox were able to steal a very talented player from their biggest rival, to go along with the Adam Ottavino/Frank German trade. That would make 3 assets the Red Sox have received from the Yankees with absolutely no players going back to New York.