The Red Sox came into the season with seven pitchers they believed could contribute to the starting rotation.
Kutter Crawford, Tanner Houck, and Garrett Whitlock were part of that mix. All three had experience in both the rotation and bullpen, but never had a set role. Having a full year in the rotation would give the Sox a better understanding of what they had.
Crawford, who started the season in the bullpen, entered the rotation because of injury. Whitlock, meanwhile, dealt with a couple of elbow injuries, limiting him to 10 starts before the Red Sox decided to move him to the bullpen.
Houck missed a chunk of the summer because of a facial fracture, but will finish with 20 starts. Despite the turbulence, manager Alex Cora said before Sunday’s rain-shortened 3-2, six-inning loss against the White Sox that he has a better understanding of how the team should use the triad moving forward.
“We’ve been having conversations with them,” Cora said. “I think at the end of the day, in the offseason, go prepare as a starter until somebody says we’re going a different route. I think that’s the way we have to do it right now.”
Crawford took the mound Sunday for his 22nd start, going 5⅓ innings, yielding four hits and three runs while walking three and striking out seven.
As Crawford reflected on his outing, he regretted the three free passes the most.
“I think for the first three or four innings I was in total control and then that fifth inning happened,” Crawford said. “It all started with a leadoff walk and then a two-out walk. I can’t let that happen. I have to attack the strike zone in those situations.”
For Crawford, getting through the fifth inning continues to be a work in progress. He’s averaged less than five innings per start, accruing just 101⅔ innings as a starter. For context, Rangers starter Nate Eovaldi has 24 starts, compiling 140⅔ innings.
The Sox faltered this season in large part because the starters couldn’t go deep into games. If Crawford wants to remain in the rotation, pitching beyond the fifth will be paramount because the Sox believe in his stuff.
“Stuff-wise he’s one of the best that we have,” Cora said. “Four-seamer, the cutter, the sweeper, the curveball, the split. Physically, he’s in a good spot. I think a lot of people, including me, have been surprised at the fact that he’s been able to post this season, especially when he started as a reliever then we built him up.
“Although his starts haven’t been seven innings, he’s been able to pitch every five days, which is important. The quality strike-throwing is the next step. It’s not good enough to just throw strikes. You have to throw quality strikes.”
Although Houck has a 4.92 ERA, Cora has remained bullish on the righthander as a starter. Houck’s outings often entail dominance followed by struggles. Similar to Crawford, pitching deep into games remains an obstacle. It’s fair to question, regardless of his poor showing in the rotation, whether Houck should be a starter based on his injury history. Whitlock also underwent hip surgery last year while Houck underwent back surgery.
“The offseason wasn’t perfect for those guys,” said Cora. “They can actually attack the offseason the right way because they’re healthy this year.”
Crawford said he plans to add 5 pounds of muscle over the offseason, and really focus on his lower half. He feels that will help his durability. The idea of Whitlock, Crawford, and Houck remaining in the rotation is up for debate if the Sox want to contend next season. You can add Nick Pivetta to that list, too.
The four pitchers have proven that on a contending team they might be best suited for the back end of a rotation.
Based on what Cora intimated Sunday, Crawford will have his chance to claim that role.
“Hearing him say those words makes you want to work harder,” said Crawford. “I want to focus on making those adjustments in the offseason and really hitting the gym hard this year.”
The Red Sox’ offense Sunday was highlighted by solo shots from Wilyer Abreu and Adam Duvall. When the rain delay occurred following the sixth, fans were more excited for the Patriots game on the jumbotron in center field than they were their Red Sox.
Maybe quality starting pitching next season will change that.