So, what are the Boston Red Sox going to do about the ninth inning in their biggest month of the season?
For much of the year, Barnes seemed to have a stranglehold on the job. But that grip loosened, and now it seems like it’s a role up for grabs. The simplest answer is they could approach things by committee and use some combination of Barnes, Ottavino and Whitlock based on the matchups.
But there is something to be said about having a defined role. In an ideal world, it would be Barnes, who at times this year looked untouchable. At this point, given the regression and now absence, he would be better off in the seventh or eighth inning to get comfortable again. If he controls the strike zone and looks like he’s reverting to his form of earlier this year, then he gets some shots in the ninth inning.
Ottavino long has been best served as an eighth-inning arm. Among the few reasons for pause to use him as a closer is that when he is off, it’s his command that is slipping. It’s not so much that he gets hit all around, but he issues walks, creates traffic and the lack of control allows for guys to advance bases on bad pitches.
When Ottavino is on, though, the upside is tantalizing. His sweeping slider is devastating and, at times, unhittable. Ottavino is a seasoned veteran with a ton of late-inning experience. If nothing else, he has the makeup for the role.
But Whitlock fits into the equation, too. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, which is probably the most important thing. When Whitlock is off, he generally is giving up one or two big hits as opposed to just walking a bunch of guys. When determining the lesser of two evils, that’s probably the better outcome.
Whitlock rarely has flamed out this season, and Wednesday’s key win over the Tampa Bay Rays is a prime example of why he might be perfect for the closer job. Sure, there’s probably some fear in using a Rule 5 guy who hadn’t before pitched above Double-A as the closer for your stretch run. However, there’s enough of a sample size now to know that Whitlock can flummox opposing hitters and, above all else, never is pitching scared. Even when his stuff isn’t as sharp as usual, he always attacks batters and never seems skittish. That arguably is the biggest asset for a closer.
Maybe it is time to try Whitlock as the closer. He has shown he has the makeup and the arsenal, and using him in that role will allow the Red Sox to get more out of Ottavino and Barnes by deploying them in other high-leverage situations. There’s some calculated risk, to be sure, but nothing so far suggests Whitlock couldn’t handle it.
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