For a night, Brayan Bello offered the Red Sox a dazzling glimpse of his considerable potential.
From the first pitch of the game — a 96-mile-per-hour sinker that incited a swing and miss from the Blue Jays’ George Springer — Bello looked in command of the big league stage. He worked at 96-99 m.p.h with his fastball, an offering complemented by a deceptive changeup that ducked under bats and a slider that fell off the plate.
Over five innings, he held the powerful Blue Jays lineup to just two runs on six hits (all singles) while walking one and striking out seven. Though Bello took a no-decision in an eventual 3-2, 10-inning loss to the Blue Jays, the outing represented a step forward in the sixth outing of the 23-year-old’s rookie season.
“Slowly but surely he’s becoming a guy,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “[Is he] going to have some bumps in the road? Of course. But I think he understands what it takes to pitch at this level.”
Bello’s ability to learn from his big league trial represents a promising development for the future of the Red Sox. Yet the fact that he is not alone as a rookie starter who must endure bruises while trying to gain his footing has been a central element in the Sox’ fall from contention this year.
At a time when the Sox are in desperation mode, their rotation against the Blue Jays featured three consecutive rookies who entered this year with a combined one game and two innings of big league experience: Josh Winckowski, Bello, and Thursday starter Kutter Crawford.
How challenging is it for a team to succeed under those circumstances?
“[With] a bunch of kids? It’s not easy,” said Cora. “At this level it’s not easy for the great ones. Imagine [what it’s like] for young kids learning their craft.”
Rewind. At the start of spring training, the Red Sox believed they had seven starting options who’d established themselves as big leaguers. The team anticipated having Chris Sale, Nate Eovaldi, Nick Pivetta, Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, Tanner Houck, and Garrett Whitlock, with James Paxton anticipated as a contributor in the second half.
The Red Sox were under no illusions that a seven-deep group would be able to account for 162 starts. But the team felt good about its emerging options in the upper minors.
The projected WooSox rotation featured Crawford (who made the Red Sox’ Opening Day bullpen), Winckowski, and Connor Seabold. Another layer of Double A starters (Bello, Chris Murphy, Jay Groome, Brandon Walter) loomed as potential late-season options.
What the Sox did not anticipate, however, was the need for so many of their depth starters to contribute in the rotation at the same time. Sale’s ribcage stress fracture immediately altered the team’s starting equation, while late-inning struggles redirected Houck and eventually Whitlock into the bullpen.
And so, as the team’s projected starters began to fall like dominoes in June and early July, with Eovaldi, Hill, and Wacha all landing on the injured list, the Sox were left entrusting an unforeseen number of games to call-ups. Their season quickly changed directions as they did so.
Through Wednesday, the seven members of the season-opening depth chart — Pivetta, Hill, Eovaldi, Wacha, Sale, Whitlock, and Houck — had a combined 3.93 ERA as starters while averaging 5.15 innings in 91 total starts. The Sox had a 48-43 (.527) record in those games.
Meanwhile, the team has received a combined 30 starts from the rookie quartet of Winckowski (13 starts), Crawford (10), Bello (4), and Seabold (3). That quartet had delivered an average of 4.79 innings per start with a combined 6.33 ERA. The Sox are 11-19 (.367) in their outings.
Contenders do lean on rookie starters, but typically try to add them in drips rather than with open spigots. The Sox were one of just five teams in the big leagues this year to have at least four rookie pitchers make three or more starts. The other four (Athletics, Reds, Angels, Tigers) entered Wednesday a combined 108 games below .500.
“Having a bunch of [young] guys at the same time, it’s challenging for them. It’s challenging for us as a staff,” said Sox pitching coach Dave Bush. “At this level, the results still matter more than anything else. So we’re trying to help them develop into good big leaguers, learn the ropes and get their feet wet, but also trying to help them perform because of where we are in the standings and just trying to make sure that they’re ready to compete and do their best.”
There have been flashes of considerable promise. Crawford has shown an impressive ability to pitch to a game plan with command of a four-pitch mix that has allowed him to compete more often than not. Bello’s potentially dominant arsenal — headlined by a 96-98-mile-per-hour power sinker — has been a head-turner. Though he’s struggled with more exposure in the big leagues, Winckowski has had outings where his command has allowed him to breeze through opposing lineups.
The Sox have seen promise in all of them. Beyond 2022, the Sox will have greater comfort that the growing pains of this year will permit their young starters to compete on a more consistent basis in future years.
“It’s not like we’re just throwing guys out there to make a handful of starts knowing they’ll be gone next year. These are guys that we like, guys we think can be important pieces for us in the future. This is a valuable year for them,” said Bush. “The success may come and go over the course of the year, but it’s a valuable year for development and for who they’re going to be in the future for us.”
But the group’s collective — and not unexpected — growing pains while transitioning to the big leagues have made the 2022 season a challenge, both for them and their team.
“They’re learning the hard way. We’re learning the hard way,” said Cora. “But I do believe these tough times are going to make them better pitchers.”