Entering the 2021 season, the Boston Red Sox were projected to be around a .500 team with a slim chance of making the playoffs. Fast-forward seven months later and they were two wins and a disappearing offense away from winning the American League pennant. And while their hitting carried them more than their pitching did, two bright spots and minor reasons why Boston was able to exceed expectations and make a deep postseason run were Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock.
Both of Boston’s rookie right-handers enjoyed solid success during their first full Major League seasons, giving Boston’s rotation (Houck) and bullpen (both) a much-needed boost on several occasions. Now, with all focus on the 2022 season, can this talented duo break out in our fantasy world if given expanded real-life roles with the Red Sox? Let’s take a look.
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Tanner Houck & Garrett Whitlock: 2022 Breakouts?
Throughout the 2021 season, the Red Sox had issues finding consistency in their rotation. Both Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards were disasters and demoted out of the rotation mid-season and Boston never really found anyone to step in every 5th or 6th day. The return of Chris Sale certainly helped and 25-year-old Tanner Houck’s emergence was additionally huge for Boston down the stretch. In 13 starts and five relief appearances spanning 69 innings, Houck recorded a 3.52 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 7.4% walk rate, and 30.5% strikeout rate. His xERA was even a bit lower at 3.22. Houck was a bit better in relief than as a starter but still had a 3.68 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 30.0% strikeout rate in his 13 starts this season.
When you watch Houck pitch and look at his metrics, it’s easy to get excited about what he can do with a full-time starter’s role in 2022 and beyond.
Houck had three offerings record a whiff rate above 30% in 2022. Leading the way was his filthy slider with a .159 BAA, .232 SLG, and 42.4% whiff rate. With his lower 3/4 arm slot, Houck’s slider gets elite horizontal movement and is a tough pitch for both right-handed and left-hander hitters to square up. In fact, Houck was one of just five pitchers in 2021 that had a slider with a BAA <.200, SLG <.250, wOBA <.250, xBA <.150, xSLG <.200, xwOBA <.200, Hard-Hit <20%, and Whiff >40%. The other four were Blake Treinen, Cristian Javier, Tyler Matzek, and Jeff Hoffman. Yes, I’m cherry-picking the stats, but you get the point. Houck’s slider is elite.
Tanner Houck is a finalist for the PitchingNinja Filthiest Slider of the Year Award. 🏆 pic.twitter.com/FlMOIsIVwI
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 16, 2021
While the slider is elite, how Houck utilizes the rest of his arsenal is the real key to his success.
Opposing batters combined to hit .274 on Houck’s 4-seamer and sinker, although, the xBA on both pitches were considerably lower. Locating these pitches better, especially the 4-seamer will be crucial for Houck to maintain his success and take a step forward in the rotation. Houck often left his 4-seamer over the heart of the plate but luckily batters weren’t able to square up the pitch often with only an 84.7 mph AVG exit velocity. Limiting hard contact was another area Houck excelled in this season with three of his four offerings having an AVG EV of 86.3 mph or less and an 87.2 mph Avg EV overall.
Lastly, Houck’s splitter is another offering I’d like to see gains with in 2022. While the pitch was effective when used with a .059 BAA and 36.8% whiff rate, Houck only threw it 7.4% of the time and only 12 times total against right-handers. Increased confidence and usage in his splitter could really benefit Houck in 2022 and keep hitters off his two fastballs.
Not only was Houck impressive throughout the season, but he also made improvements from his 2020 rookie season.
Granted, his 2020 debut was a small 17 inning sample size, the improvements in many departments cannot be ignored. Houck improved both his chase rate and whiff rate in 2021 and hitters were swinging a tad more against him in general. And while hitters were swinging more, the contact rates against Houck went down with his Zone and Chase Contact rates both decreasing nearly 5%. Another key for Houck was getting ahead in the count more frequently. Houck got ahead 0-1 on hitters 60.7% of the time, up 6.7% from 2020. And with his swing and miss stuff, getting ahead in the count makes Houck even more dangerous.
Houck’s ability to limit hard contact, induce groundballs nearly half of his batted balls, and miss bats at a high clip makes him an exciting pitcher to roster moving forward and one of my favorite late-round targets in 2022. If he can make some improvements that I mentioned above while stepping into Boston’s rotation fulltime, he has the chance of finishing as a top-40 arm next season. Not bad for a late-round selection.
Now, over to the man I consider the savior of the Red Sox bullpen this season. Whenever a big out was needed or we had to bring in someone for the most crucial inning of the game, Garrett Whitlock was usually Alex Cora’s choice over the second half of the season. In 46 outings spanning 73.1 innings, Whitlock dominated to the tune of a 1.96 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 5.7 BB%, and 27.2 K%.
Even though he was exclusively used as a reliever, Whitlock was developed by the New York Yankees as a starter, making 38 starts and only four relief appearances. On top of that, 19 of Whitlock’s 46 appearances with Boston in 2021 were two innings or more. All of this leads many pondering if Boston could transition Whitlock back into the rotation in 2022 and beyond. If the Red Sox do this, Whitlock would be a particularly fascinating late-round target in 2022 drafts.
In 2021, Whitlock relied on four pitches; A sinker (53.4% usage), changeup (20.6%), slider (16.5%), and a four-seamer (9.5%). All but the sinker recorded a whiff rate above 30%, a SLG under .300, and a BAA of .216 or less. In general, opposing hitters had a troublesome time trying to square up and generate hard contact against Boston’s rookie right-hander. Whitlock allowed a .328 xSLG, 87.7 mph average EV, and a minuscule 4.1% barrel rate (95th percentile). What made Whitlock even more effective was that a decent amount of this weaker contact was on the ground with a 49.7% groundball rate, which correlates with his minor league performance.
Holy hell this CH from Garrett Whitlock pic.twitter.com/YU3v9OeP3i
— Alex Fast (@AlexFast8) April 8, 2021
One area I wonder about with Whitlock in 2022 and beyond is the usage of his two fastballs along with the location of his sinker. Whitlock used his sinker 43.9% or around 5.6 times more than his four-seamer in 2021. I’m not necessarily advocating for a drastic usage adjustment, but having this 43.9% gap decrease a tad could be beneficial to Whitlock’s success in 2022 and beyond. Especially since his four-seamer was a highly-effective offering for him this past season with a .114 xBA, .265 xSLG, and a 37.9% whiff rate which was the 6th best mark in baseball with a minimum PA threshold of 25 on Savant.
As for Whitlock’s sinker, despite scoring well in the run value department, I believe his sinker could be even better in 2022 if he locates it lower in the zone. Below, I put his sinker heat map next to three of the better sinker ballers in the game in Logan Webb, Sandy Alcantara, and Framber Valdez. As you can see, the other three located their sinkers lower in the zone, much more frequently. Whitlock doing the same could make this offering even better. And if he can shift around 10-15% of his sinker usage over to his four-seamer (or even some to the slider/changeup), this could keep hitters off of his sinker as well.
If moved to the rotation, would Whitlock be an elite arm that breaks out like Webb did this year? Maybe not. But with his ability to miss bats at an above-average clip, induce groundballs, and limit barrels and hard contact, Whitlock could definitely flourish in Boston’s rotation and flirt with top-50 status next season. But the real question is, will he and/or Tanner Houck receive a chance to start?
Before we dive into that, I’ll leave you with a fun fact. Out of the 196 pitchers that exceeded 70 innings in 2021, only two had a Zone Swing rate above 70%, Swing rate above 50%, Zone Contact Rate below 81%, Contact rate below 75%, and a Zone rate above 45%. Those two were Chad Green and Garrett Whitlock. So while Whitlock was middle of the pack in O-Swing% and SwStr%, he did a great job of pounding the zone and limiting damage when he did.
Will They Start? What Will Their Roles Be?
This is the real question that needs to be asked. There’s no denying that the talent is there with both young right-handers, but there’s no guarantee either will start in 2022. But while there are no guarantees, it’s not out of the question for one or both to make Boston’s 2022 rotation.
Currently, the Red Sox appear to have three rotation spots locked in for 2022 with Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, and Nick Pivetta. Both Martin Perez and Garrett Richards have team options, but both are likely gone next season. And even if one or both get brought back, it’s unlikely either are rotation options after their struggles in 2021.
That leaves the wild card, Eduardo Rodriguez. E-Rod has pitched his entire Major League career (153 starts, 856.2 IP) and is a free agent for the first time in his career. I’m 50/50 on whether the Red Sox will try to resign him. On one hand, he’s highly thought of throughout the organization and has had solid success in a Red Sox uniform, but the 28-year-old southpaw will likely command a contract in the 20-25 million range annually over at least four years, likely 5-6 years.
Are Chaim Bloom and company going to want to invest that amount in Rodriguez given his track record of health and durability? That remains to be seen. And even if they don’t resign Rodriguez, I’m sure they’ll be active on the pitching front to try and bring in another solid starter to pair with the three mentioned above. I’d imagine they don’t want to have two young arms like Houck and Whitlock both in the rotation for a team with World Series aspirations in 2022. This will be a situation to monitor closely this offseason as Houck and Whitlock would be exciting late-round drasft selections if given the chance to step into Boston’s rotation.
There’s also another avenue in play for both arms as well. The Red Sox currently don’t have anyone locked into the closer role in 2022 and beyond. Matt Barnes excelled in the role during the first half of the season (38.0 IP, 2.61 ERA, 44.1 K%) before completely imploding in the 2nd half with a 6.48 ERA in 22 appearances. Barnes was demoted from the role and never given a chance to reclaim it, even during Boston’s postseason run into the ALCS.
If the Red Sox don’t bring in a closer via trade or free agency this offseason, it wouldn’t surprise me if Houck or Whitlock received a chance to claim the role in spring training. Another situation to monitor this offseason. But the overall point here is that both Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock have multiple paths to being valuable fantasy pitchers in 2022 and should be on everyone’s radar in 2022 drafts.
Media Credit: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire, Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sports, Baseball Savant, Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja), Alex Fast (@AlexFast8)
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