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around the horn | starting pitchers

Here’s where things stand with the Red Sox rotation at the moment

Nate Eovaldi established himself as an ace in the 2021 season.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Red Sox rotation was a huge question mark entering the 2021 season, and for good reason. Just a season earlier, Sox starters combined for a whopping 5.34 ERA, sixth-worst in the majors. They yielded the fourth-most homers per nine innings (1.79) and had the second-worst walk rate (10.2 percent).

Yet there was a silver lining of sorts to lean on coming into 2021, beginning with the return of Eduardo Rodriguez, who missed all of 2020 with myocarditis after a bout with COVID-19. Chris Sale would be back, too.

Nate Eovaldi had a solid 2020. Nick Pivetta, who came over from the Phillies at the trade deadline in August, showed promise in the second half of the season. Martín Pérez was serviceable and possibly could situate himself at the back end of the rotation. The Sox had added Garrett Richards, too.


Yet there were still uncertainties.

It was unclear how Rodriguez would respond to missing an entire year. Sale’s timeline — and how effective he would be upon his return — was up in the air. Eovaldi had stayed healthy for a 60-game season, but what would that look like over 162 for a pitcher who hadn’t made as many as 25 starts in a season since 2015?

Pérez, Pivetta, and Richards were wild cards. Each had served time in the bullpen with their previous teams after struggling.

The unpredictability sometimes reared its head this season; Richards and Pérez ultimately were relegated to bullpen roles. Yet for the most part, Sox starters hovered around the middle of the pack in the league. They had a 4.49 ERA, which ranked 17th, and were 10th in strikeout rate (24.3 percent). And the Sox reached the American League Championship Series.

That was the look backward; now it’s time to take a peek ahead (pitchers listed in no particular order).


Nate Eovaldi

When the Red Sox signed him to a four-year, $67.5 million contract after the 2018 season, some critics said they made the wrong decision, that they were prisoners of the moment, with Eovaldi coming off the postseason heroics that helped the Sox claim the World Series title.

Now, as he enters the last season of the deal, it looks like a steal.

As Eovaldi has evolved and matured in the league, so has his approach against hitters. Despite having a 100-mile-per-hour heater, he has never been a huge strikeout guy. He has just 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings for his career, though he has registered career highs in strikeout rate the last two seasons, with a combined 25.7 percentage.

Eovaldi’s five-pitch mix has made him lethal, and it helps that he’s able to locate those pitches. He had just a 3.5 percent walk rate in 2020, then 4.6 percent this season.

As it stands, Eovaldi is the clear-cut head of this rotation, at least until Sale can prove he is some effective form of his old self.

Eovaldi made 32 starts in 2021, his most since 2014, when he made 33 for the Marlins. He knows his body better now, and he’s in constant communication with pitching coach Dave Bush and the training staff. He has tweaked his routine, too, not throwing at all the day after a start.

“It definitely helps me to be around a little bit with five different teams now,” Eovaldi said during the season. “Seeing each guy, from each organization, and how they kind of do their craft, I’ve had to change the way I go about my business.”


▪ Eduardo Rodriguez

It’s no secret that the lefthander had a down year, compiling a 4.74 ERA in 31 starts (32 appearances overall), with 157⅔ innings.

Rodriguez is a free agent, but the Red Sox could extend him a qualifying offer at $18.4 million; it’s hard to see him declining that.

Eduardo Rodriguez led Red Sox pitchers with 13 victories in 2021.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

At 28, he has age on his side. He could be a free agent again at 29, when he will still be very much in his prime. He would be out to prove himself, too, believing he can return to his 2019 form, when he had a 3.81 ERA in 200-plus innings.

Rodriguez pitched well in his last two starts of this year’s postseason, most notably when he went six innings against the Astros in the ALCS, yielding three runs on five hits while striking out seven. When he induced a Carlos Correa ground out to end the sixth, Rodriguez pointed to his wrist, mirroring a gesture Correa makes when he does something well. Perhaps Rodriguez’s time with the Red Sox isn’t up. Time will tell.

▪ Nick Pivetta

He was a spark plug in 2021. His 4.53 ERA in 155 innings doesn’t really tell the story of what he meant to the staff.

Manager Alex Cora made it clear to Pivetta in spring training that he sees him as a starter, and 30 of Pivetta’s 31 regular-season appearances were starts. But he pitched in multiple roles down the stretch and in the postseason, serving as a long reliever when the Sox needed him most.


Nick Pivetta made one start and two relief appearances in the 2021 postseason.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

He’s in his first year of arbitration and is due for a significant raise after making just over $600,000 this year. Pivetta isn’t a front-of-the-line starter, but he’s someone who could play a role in winning games, much as he did in 2021.

▪ Chris Sale

With a clean offseason to train, the Red Sox are banking that Sale can simulate his pre-Tommy John surgery self.

“I think everybody here and everybody in this organization feels very positive,” Cora said at the end of the season.

Sale made nine starts, registering a 3.16 ERA in 42⅔ innings, but seven of those starts came against teams under .500. His velocity reached 98 but dipped to 92 sometimes. Some of that was his doing, his attempt at tinkering and not just being a thrower. Another part of it was just getting his legs under him again.

“As my arm strength keeps building up and this progression keeps going, I think that’ll pick up as well, as well as the consistency in velocity,” Sale said at the end of the year.

In Game 5 of the ALCS, Sale pitched into the sixth inning, with just two earned runs to his name, but Cora steered away from him at times during the playoffs. If the Sox are to make another postseason push, you would imagine Sale has to be a part of the mix.


▪ Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock

This is where it gets interesting.

Whitlock was the Sox’ best reliever this year, compiling a 1.96 ERA in 46 games. After utilizing just a changeup and fastball for much of his pro career, Whitlock implemented a slider to have another pitch that would go away from righthanded hitters.

At the beginning of the season, the Sox said they would consider putting Whitlock in the rotation, but not this year, considering it was his first year back from Tommy John surgery and his first season in the majors.

The Sox used him in most every role, from closer when Matt Barnes struggled to multi-inning guy, and he responded. Maybe in 2022 it will be as a starter.

Garrett Whitlock made an excellent impression in his rookie season.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Houck moved to the bullpen at the end of the season but was a key contributor this year. His sweeping slider is among the best in the game and helped him post a 3.52 ERA in 18 appearances (13 starts).

Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said at the end of the year that both Whitlock and Houck have the potential to be elite starters but wouldn’t commit to them in the rotation. Not yet, at least. But it’s hard not seeing one of the two contributing this way, if not both. Whitlock made 38 starts in the minors, so it’s not foreign to him.

Overall, the rotation still has its uncertainties. But Cora, Bush, and the brass/coaching staff proved in 2021 that they can live with uncertainties and adjust when need be. They’ll have more wiggle room in 2022 and past success to draw on as they navigate through another 162 games.

Julian McWilliams can be reached at julian.mcwilliams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @byJulianMack.