ST. PETERSBURG -- This year’s American League Rookie of the Year Award race should be a competitive one featuring talented position players like 2020 postseason hero Randy Arozarena of the Rays, Ryan Mountcastle of the Orioles and Rangers outfielder Adolis García, who is closing in on 30 homers.
There’s another player you shouldn’t forget about, and that’s Red Sox right-hander Garrett Whitlock.
Pitching in crucial situations all season, the Rule 5 Draft pick fired two more scoreless innings in Boston’s 3-2 win over Tampa Bay on Wednesday, lowering his ERA to 1.52 ERA in 39 appearances. In 65 innings, Whitlock has just 15 walks and 72 strikeouts while holding the opposition to a .228 average and a .606 OPS.
Consider that Whitlock underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019, and he had never pitched above Double-A before this season, it makes his story even more compelling. Not only that, but the Red Sox stole him from the rival Yankees, who didn’t protect him on their 40-man roster last offseason.
“I mean, he’s been one of the best relivers in baseball,” Red Sox ace Chris Sale said. “It’s pretty unbelievable honestly, his story and his path to the big leagues. He’s got to be a lock for Rookie of the Year. The guy’s been absolutely nails for us.”
Entering play on Thursday, of the 187 pitchers in the Majors with at least 60 innings this season, Whitlock’s ERA ranked second in the AL and fourth in MLB.
Since 1970, the only AL rookies who pitched at least 60 innings and finished with a lower ERA in a season than Whitlock’s current mark are Dellin Betances (1.40 for the 2014 Yankees) and Jonathan Papelbon (0.92 for the ’06 Red Sox).
One thing the humble Whitlock isn’t about to do is lobby in an effort to become Boston’s first Rookie of the Year Award winner since Dustin Pedroia in 2007.
“I appreciate [what Sale said], but I don’t want to pay attention to any of that stuff,” Whitlock said. “Like I said, I’m just going out there trying to get outs and if the results are good, then I’m glad, and I’m trying to move forward with that.”
On those rare occasions Whitlock has been touched up, he just about always bounces back in the next outing.
“I mean, he’s like auto-correct,” Sale said. “As soon as he has a bad one, it’s right on to the next one. That’s impressive to see from anybody from anywhere. But for a young guy, coming up doing what he had to do, that makes it all the more impressive.”
“First off, that’s really kind of him to say,” Whitlock said. “It’s a day-by-day thing. I would say that’s pretty much it. You’ve got to take it with a grain of salt, the good and the bad.”
A starter coming through the ranks, Whitlock has adjusted seamlessly to life as a full-time reliever. In 23 of his 39 appearances, he’s gone more than one inning. The last Red Sox pitcher to have more than 23 relief outings of more than three outs was Greg Harris in 1993.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” Whitlock said of being a reliever. “We’ve had a great job with the training staff, they’ve taken care of me, the pitching coaches have taken care of me, even the strength coaches have done a great job. It’s a credit to them that I’ve been able to stay healthy so far and just try and keep that going forward.”
With four Boston relievers currently on the COVID-19 related injured list, Whitlock’s importance is even greater heading down the stretch.
“He cares about winning. We took care of him early, but now it’s a full go with him, obviously,” manager Alex Cora said. “Going multiple innings, you have to be smart about it. He’s never taken anything for granted.”
If Cora starts to call on Whitlock more in the final month of the regular season than he did in the first five, he surely won’t get any complaints from the 25-year-old native of Snellville, Ga.
“My college coach gave me the best advice I’ve ever had when it comes to pitching,” Whitlock said. “He always told me, ‘When the manager hands you the ball, you get outs until he takes the ball away from you. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first inning or the last inning.’ That’s just how I’ve gone about my mentality this year. I’ve said that before and that’s genuinely how I try and approach it.”