Commentary

One scary series in Toronto makes clear where Red Sox need Garrett Whitlock

Garrett Whitlock celebrates for the Red Sox
Garrett Whitlock may prove best used as a starter long-term, but the Red Sox clearly need more help now in relief. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

So, where would you use Garrett Whitlock when he recovers from his hip injury?

That return isn’t imminent, so you’ve got a little time to mull and waffle. After throwing a bullpen session Wednesday in Toronto, he’s scheduled to throw another Saturday at Wrigley Field, the Red Sox in Chicago for just their third visit ever to the north side yard two years newer (and renovated far gaudier) than Fenway Park.

Then, probably a rehab assignment — especially if Whitlock’s to go back to the rotation, but even if he’s destined for the bullpen given he’s not pitched in a game since June 7.

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“He’s a weapon, regardless,” manager Alex Cora told reporters in Toronto. “He’s going to get important outs, either early in the game or late in the game. We’re just going to have to wait and see, talk about it, and make a decision.”

There is a practical element to this, obviously: Building Whitlock back up to start would take longer, so using him in relief gets him back in the mix faster. That’s less what my question’s about, though. All things being equal, where is he best used?

It’s the bullpen, isn’t it? That feels weird!

The logic of using your best pitchers in the starting rotation, where they can throw more innings, isn’t super hard to figure. The Red Sox stuffed Whitlock’s four-year contract extension with innings-based escalators for a reason, and rolled him from the bullpen just two weeks into the year.

He’d made 55 relief appearances (including five last October) to that point, his 1.87 ERA across 91⅓ innings better than the 4.15 ERA across his 39 innings and nine starts. The Red Sox only went 5-4 in those games, but Whitlock only pitched into the fifth in four of them.

That feels almost beside the point, though. His pitch mix is essentially the same as a starter as it was as a reliever, so of course he’s going to produce a little worse when a lineup turns over against him. Hitters have a .587 OPS against Whitlock in their first crack in a game, and an .807 in all subsequent.

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But the simple fact is these Red Sox have had a lot more success filling starting slots than they have bullpen ones. Which is even more remarkable given they’ve gotten zero innings from Chris Sale and last saw Nate Eovaldi a day after Whitlock’s last appearance.

Not having Tanner Houck in Toronto played a big part in the bullpen feeling exposed all over again, though the offense also revisiting the early season and going 3 for 26 with runners in scoring position also played a massive part in losing the series. As did Cora, frankly.

After his team took a one-run lead in the eighth Tuesday, Cora opted against using relevation John Schreiber for a second inning and chose Tyler Danish, a largely mop-up arm who got through the eighth only to light the Jays’ fuse in the ninth.

The next night, Matt Strahm — the choice many in the moment wanted to close Tuesday — nearly blew a three-run lead before finishing his own two-inning save.

Finishing games has simply been a slog, with an imperfect Houck — even giving up eight hits in eight appearances since his first save on June 10 — rising at a time of relative calm. Meanwhile, the rotation has been the backbone, sixth in the majors in ERA and fourth in Wins Above Average as a staff, behind only the MLB-best Yankees, NL-best Dodgers, and Philadelphia.

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It’s been a remarkable three months. Nick Pivetta’s held hitters to a .180 average since mid-May, shrinking his home run rate for the season by a third from a year ago. Michael Wacha’s thrown more innings than Eovaldi, with a 2.69 ERA despite one of the league’s lowest strikeout rates. Rich Hill’s been healthy and league average; at 42, who could ask for more?

Is it sustainable to September? I didn’t think it’d get to July like this, and I’m not sure it needs to be. Eovaldi will be back. Josh Winckowski is helping fill the gap. Sale, presumably, will arrive and offer something, though that may prove to be in relief. There’s also James Paxton, and/or whatever low-risk arm Chaim Bloom can nab at the deadline.

As for the bullpen, Josh Taylor is also close to a season debut. Brayan Bello looms as a late-season plugin, still dominating in Triple A. It feels like less is coming, but the issue there has felt less about pieces and more about assembling them.

Whitlock was a massive stabilizing force a year ago. He seems poised to be again.

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