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Rookie Garrett Whitlock Emerging as Lockdown Red Sox Reliever

Boston selected him in the Rule 5 draft from the Yankees before the season. Now, he's helped stabilize the bullpen.

Garrett Whitlock is not one for grand displays of emotion.

When he was taken by the Red Sox in the Rule 5 Draft last December, for instance, he allowed himself to crack a smile. And then the laidback pitcher simply went to move on with his day.

“His name got called, and we all went crazy,” says Cal Tinsley, the head strength coach at the facility where Whitlock trains near his home in Alabama, and where he watched the draft last winter. “We were all pumped for him. And of course, he gives us a typical smile, and that’s about it.”'

Oct 16, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Garrett Whitlock (72) pitches against the Houston Astros during the seventh inning in game two of the 2021 ALCS at Minute Maid Park.

Garrett Whitlock has been the most reliable contributor in the Red Sox' bullpen this season.

It wasn’t that Whitlock, 25, was indifferent about going to the Red Sox. (Much to the contrary.) It’s just that a smile is about the most expression that you’ll get from him in a big moment. Want some updated evidence? The rookie was on the mound for Boston to close out the American League wild-card game and the series-clinching victory in Game 4 of the ALDS, and in both, he celebrated with not so much as a fist pump. He seems to embody the classic baseball compliment of “low-heart-rate guy.” And he has hung in there with the best of them in high-leverage situations so far this October.

“His composure, his stuff, the way he prepares, the way he goes about his business—it’s as professional as it gets,” says teammate Kiké Hernández. “It’s so easy to forget that he’s this young and that he has this amount of experience because he gets the job done day in and day out. It never seems like the situation is too big for him.”

The Red Sox’s bullpen has not always been stable this season. But Whitlock has established himself as perhaps its most reliable contributor. In 73 1/3 regular-season innings, he had a 1.96 ERA with a 4.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and he’s maintained a similar quality of performance in the playoffs. The sinkerballer has shown an ability to keep steady and regroup even in the tensest of moments. In Game 4 of the ALCS, for example, Whitlock got into a rare jam: After navigating smoothly through one inning of work in the seventh, he allowed a leadoff, game-tying home run in the eighth, followed by a single. But manager Alex Cora left the rookie on the mound with the heart of the order coming up. And Whitlock responded by getting three quick outs to end the inning. Even after that performance—his messiest of October—he has a 2.16 playoff ERA and has allowed just four hits and one walk in eight-plus innings of work.

It’s all the more remarkable when one considers that a little more than a year ago, Whitlock was just finishing the grueling recovery process from Tommy John surgery, training with Tinsley in Pelham, Ala. He’d originally been drafted by the Yankees out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2017. He’d begun to emerge as a true prospect after progressing nicely through the lower levels of their system. But he was hit with the news that he would need surgery in 2019—which meant that by the time he was ready to throw again, it was mid-2020, with the minor leagues shut down amid the pandemic.

So he kept training at home while juggling two jobs, one with a landscaping company, one as a coach for a local travel-ball team. This schedule meant that he would sometimes work 10-hour days in the Alabama sun before driving straight to Tinsley’s, covered in mud with his workboots still on, where he would quickly change clothes in the bathroom and head into a workout.

“I was kind of pulled to say, Garrett, hey, you know—you’re a big leaguer, it’s going to happen, you don’t have to do all this,” Tinsley says. “But there’s also a certain work ethic that it takes to be on the wrong end of a shovel for 10 hours a day and then come in and train. … It was really cool to see that.”

Several major leaguers and other players in affiliated ball trained with Tinsley. (That group includes one of Whitlock’s current ALCS opponents: Astros reliever Kendall Graveman.) But their workouts were held in the morning, and Whitlock’s schedule meant that he usually had to come in during the afternoon or early evening, when the facility was used by high schoolers. It didn’t make a difference to Whitlock. And it was a delight for the kids: “They all had that experience with him, so they’re following along and pretty excited for him,” says Tinsley.

Oct 5, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez (7) and relief pitcher Garrett Whitlock (72) celebrate the 6-2 victory against the New York Yankees in the American League Wildcard game at Fenway Park.

Whitlock seems to embody the classic baseball compliment of “low-heart-rate guy.”

By the time the winter rolled around, no one in a front office had been able to see Whitlock throw in person since July 2019, before his surgery and the chaos of the pandemic. So the Yankees rolled the dice on him: With a crowded roster, they chose not to protect him for the Rule 5 Draft, the annual exercise that allows teams to select players who have been in organized ball for four or five years but are not currently on a 40-man roster. Yet other clubs had been paying attention, including the Red Sox, and he was the fourth pick in the draft.

One contributing factor? Whitlock had been documenting his rehab and workout process on social media, and Boston scouts took notice.

“Instagram gets a shoutout,” Cora said with a grin when asked about Whitlock after the ALDS. “I’m glad that some of the scouts have Instagram and saw him throwing a bullpen.”

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A Rule 5 selection must stick on his new team’s active roster for the entirety of the season unless he is injured or put on outright waivers. But that was no issue for Whitlock.

“From day one, he’s been impressive, and he really hasn’t waned at all,” says fellow Red Sox reliever Adam Ottavino. “He’s been awesome the whole year.”

As for his lack of obvious emotion on the mound? Whitlock does get butterflies, he confirmed during the ALDS, and he can always feel the adrenaline pumping. But he has other things to focus on: “It’s like I’ve been saying since Day 1,” he says. “Whenever AC tells me to go out and get outs, I’m just going to get outs until he comes and takes the ball away from me.”

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