Any time the Red Sox are able to make any sort of transaction with the Yankees, fans usually go crazy. While the big storyline this offseason was the Red Sox acquiring reliever Adam Ottavino from New York for what felt like essentially nothing, in comes Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock who really did come from the Yankees for nothing. Now, the 25-year-old reliever has turned into Boston’s own secret weapon.
The Yankees drafted Whitlock in the 18th round of the 2017 draft, and he made his professional baseball debut with the Gulf Coast Yankees that same year. In his debut MiLB season, between two teams, Whitlock threw 14.1 innings in five games, including three starts. He earned a 3.77 ERA and 0.98 WHIP with 22 strikeouts, holding batters to a .259 batting average. A solid pick-up, Whitlock was never considered some highly-touted pitching prospect in the Yankees farm system. He was regarded, at best, as an above-average pitcher who flew under the radar.
Whitlock struggled to find his footing a bit in 2018, bouncing back and forth between different levels all season, but by 2019 he established himself at the AA level, ending the season with a 3.07 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 57 strikeouts in 70.1 innings pitched in 14 games as a starter.
Unfortunately, just as Whitlock’s career was beginning to pick up steam, it came to a screeching halt to undergo Tommy John surgery. Whitlock spent all of 2020 recovering from his surgery and never threw a pitch at the Yankees’ alternate site last season. Ultimately, the Yankees decided to leave Whitlock unprotected in the Rule 5 draft in December. Between a 40-man roster crunch and a farm system they felt had more than enough promising young pitchers, Whitlock’s above-average (at best) stats in combination with the risk of any pitcher coming back from Tommy John simply did not seem worth it to New York.
Chaim Bloom and the Red Sox scouting team on the other hand clearly saw a much different pitcher than the Yankees did. In recent years, the Red Sox rarely ever take advantage of the Rule 5 draft. Prior to 2019’s pick of Jonathan Araúz, the last time the Sox used a Rule 5 pick was in 2016 for Josh Rutledge. For the most part, Boston’s Rule 5 picks never turn out to be some hidden superstars. Still, back in December, Red Sox vice president of professional scouting Gus Quattlebaum said Whitlock was someone the Sox had their eyes as someone with “upside as a potential starter, or at a minimum can assume some volume either out of the ‘pen or as a starter.” Quattlebaum continued: “Hats tipped off to a lot of different members of the organization who have spoken up on Whitlock’s behalf, both from a makeup standpoint, an objective standpoint, and from a scouting standpoint. Even guys who aren’t in the organization anymore have played a role in helping us land on this player, so we’re excited.”
Fellow Pitcher List writer Michael Ajeto recently wrote an excellent profile on Whitlock’s repertoire and delivery, and his potential as an elite MLB reliever. One of Ajeto’s main focuses was Whitlock’s changeup, and how it’s changed into a more successful pitch since joining the Red Sox. That change stemmed from working with another Red Sox reliever, Matt Andriese, who suggested Whitlock change his mindset while throwing his changeup. Whitlock shifted his focus onto his arm speed and conviction while throwing it, while maintaining his standard circle-change grip, adding extra movement.
It seems a lot of his early-season success has come from the aid of his teammates. “They’ve been helping me understand what it’s like in that bullpen role,” Whitlock said. “Especially Matt [Andriese] — that’s kind of his role, too. That multi-inning guy, he’s had success with that in the past years,” Whitlock told the media Saturday.
Perhaps that’s what makes Whitlock’s major league appearances so far so impressive — he’s still adjusting to the workload and responsibilities of a reliever. “I told [Boston bench coach] Will [Venables] when I first showed up, ‘Shoot, I’ll be the janitor on this team if that means I get to be in the big leagues,’ ” Whitlock said. “Whatever the job is I can do to possibly help the team out, that’s what I’m glad to be doing.” While Quattlebaum did say he sees a potential upside for Whitlock as a starter down the line, the plan as of right now seems to be to stick with what’s working, and looking at his numbers out of the bullpen, the Red Sox would be silly to mess with that right now.
Of course, it’s important to be cautious with Whitlock not just because of his success as a reliever this far, but also considering the fact he’s a 25-year-old pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery. Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush told the media, “He’s certainly performed well enough to have a better role but there’s still a lot of factors here. He missed the whole year because of Tommy John. It’s his first time in the big leagues. We’re trying to be smart about how we use them and make sure we develop him appropriately. Sometimes the tendency or the temptation can be to put too much on guys like that too soon, simply because they start out really well.”
“Really well” does not even begin to tell the whole story with Whitlock this year. In seven games pitching in relief thus far (14.1 innings), Whitlock has allowed just eight hits, one run, and two walks. He’s struck out 19 hitters and held them to a .157 batting average for an ERA of 0.63 and WHIP of 0.70. With a strikeout rate approaching 40% and a 9.5 K:BB ratio, Whitlock is perhaps Boston’s most reliable multi-inning reliever next to veteran reliever and closer Matt Barnes.
As the season progresses, surely Whitlock will come back down to earth a bit. Still, his success so far probably has the Yankees second-guessing their decision to leave him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft.
Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@Jmrgraphics3 on IG)