Tomase: Can Whitlock challenge a seemingly unbreakable Red Sox record?


There isn't anyone in baseball like Garrett Whitlock. The Red Sox haven't employed such a unique weapon in 40 years.

Fans of a certain age will remember Bob Stanley, the rubber-armed right-hander who threw and threw and threw out of the bullpen during a 13-year career between 1977 and 1989. The Steamer twice finished seventh in American League Cy Young voting despite pitching primarily in relief.

In 1982, he set a team record that seemed unbreakable when he tossed 168.1 innings out of the pen, going 12-7 with a 3.10 ERA in 48 appearances.

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Forty years later, however, Whitlock is making a bid to challenge him with the kind of dominance that's transforming the Red Sox bullpen.

On Saturday, Whitlock closed out a 4-0 victory vs. the Twins by striking out five over the final 2.1 innings. He's 1-0 with a 1.04 ERA in 8.2 innings and though it's a little early to play the extrapolation game, let's do it anyway.

At his current pace, Whitlock would throw 175 innings in 61 appearances. No pitcher today could hold up under that kind of usage, however, so let's assume manager Alex Cora gives him a more manageable 45 appearances at two or three innings each. In that case, there's still a chance he reaches 130 innings without making a start.

The last reliever to do that was Blue Jays sidearmer Mark Eichhorn in 1986, and he ended up helping the Jays win consecutive World Series in 1992-93 as a setup man for Tom Henke and then Duane Ward.

The unflappable Whitlock, who pounds the strike zone as relentlessly as vintage Mike Tyson, is something else entirely. He's his own setup/closer combo, and even if he only pitches three times every two weeks, he can be deployed judiciously to not only lock down wins, but to reset the bullpen.

If he hadn't served up a cheap Yankee Stadium homer to D.J. LeMahieu on Opening Day, Whitlock probably would've been allowed to try to close out a four-inning save. He actually went four innings in his next appearance vs. the Tigers, earning the win while allowing only one baserunner in relief of Rich Hill. On Saturday, he took the ball from lefty Matt Strahm, who had taken over for starter Tanner Houck in the sixth, and slammed the door.

In today's game, there's no other pitcher like him.

"AC is in charge," Whitlock said. "So whenever he calls my name, I try to be ready."

The obvious debate to have with Whitlock is whether he should be starting. Is he more valuable throwing 130 innings in relief or 175 in the rotation?

The advantage of deploying him in the former fashion is that Cora can guarantee he makes high-leverage appearances. Throwing the first six innings of an 11-2 blowout may not be as valuable as tossing the final three of a 3-2 victory. Cora's luxury is being able to save him for the latter situation, and on this team, with a bullpen still finding its way, that's invaluable.

Down the road, Whitlock will almost certainly land in the rotation, however. The four-year, $18.75 million extension he just signed, with options potentially taking him through 2028, should make him one of the biggest bargains in baseball. The refinement of a slider alongside his devastating sinker-changeup combo has given him the kind of arsenal that can turn over a lineup multiple times.

Normally we'd call that kind of pitcher a starter. These Red Sox need him in the bullpen, however, where he's simply a weapon.

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