BALTIMORE — For Garrett Whitlock, this season marked a time in his life and career that often ranged from difficult to heartbreakingly unfathomable. Its conclusion comes not with resentment or anger, but instead gratitude.
“I’m grateful to be here,” said Whitlock. “I’m never going to take another another day where I’m not out there shagging in [batting practice] because, how many people get to say that you get to shag BP in a major league stadium every day? To me, the big word is perspective.”
That perspective has arrived through pain. The season was always going to be difficult. Whitlock underwent hip surgery last September. His preparations for 2023 were slowed drastically by the rehab process.
“Last [offseason], shoot, I wasn’t even walking until after Thanksgiving,” said Whitlock. “I kind of felt like I was playing catch-up all year.”
Yet Whitlock desperately wanted to chase the opportunity the Sox had put in front of him: Being able to spend a year in the big league rotation. In 2022, he’d gotten a taste of starting, doing so for nine games. With the Sox committed to him as a starter in 2023, he didn’t want to miss his shot.
“I always [had] it in my head, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone says starters are more valuable.’ I had this chip on my shoulder that I’m the Rule 5 guy,” said Whitlock. “I thought I could be a starter and do this.”
And so, Whitlock tried to cheat a rehab clock that typically punishes those who do not obey its rhythms. Though he started the year on the injured list, he made just two rehab starts (one in Triple A, one in Double A) and pronounced himself ready to compete at the highest level.
“I wanted to show them, ‘Hey, I want to be back. I want to help this team. I don’t like sitting on the sidelines, just being a bump on the log,’ ” said Whitlock. “I pushed them to having me back more than they wanted me to be back. Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have done that.”
The result was an elbow injury — ulnar neuritis — that made it difficult for him to finish his pitches and ultimately resulted in placement on the injured list. He rehabbed and showed considerable improvement in his pitch quality when he returned in late May. But five weeks later, Whitlock was again sidelined with a bone bruise.
By the time he was ready to start throwing again, the calendar had dwindled. Whitlock wanted to pitch in the big leagues rather than spend the majority of his remaining season on rehab assignments, so he accepted a move to the bullpen in order to accelerate his path back to Boston.
“It wasn’t because we wanted to [move him out of the rotation]. It was out of necessity and his willingness to post, to pitch,” said Sox manager Alex Cora. “He wanted to come back as soon as possible and contribute, so we put him in the bullpen and where we were, it kind of made sense.”
While Whitlock’s return once again met uneven results, on-field outcomes were rendered meaningless when his 23-year-old brother, Gavrie, drowned in a lake in Georgia in early September.
The grief of that loss was all-consuming. Just a few weeks since the tragedy, it remains present. It has altered how Whitlock thinks about his life, and his profession.
As he lives with loss, Whitlock is trying to appreciate the opportunities that he has. He is no longer concerned with trying to prove that he can start but instead trying to embrace what he does, in any form it takes.
“After my brother [died], I don’t care [about roles] anymore. I’m just grateful to be in the big leagues,” said Whitlock. “Whatever I can do to help get this team to a World Series, that’s what I’m looking forward to. I want to get back to our team being in winning ways, being competitive, absolutely trying to dominate. Whatever role the people that are making those decisions see as best for me, I’m all in on that. After that, I’m grateful to be here.”
Still, Whitlock does not shy from the disappointment of his performance or his expectation to be better. He does not view his season — 5.15 ERA (5.23 in 10 starts spanning 51⅔ innings, 4.95 in 12 relief outings) ― as acceptable, regardless of the difficult entry coming off a compressed offseason build-up.
“I’m definitely never going to make any excuses,” said Whitlock. “This isn’t the year I wanted to have. This is a year that I want to never have again. It’s frustrating.”
Yet Whitlock sees reasons for optimism, not only with how he threw the ball in his most recent outing (two shutout innings, potentially related to improved rhythm resulting from an adjustment of his pre-pitch hand position) but also with the fact that he will enter the offseason healthy, ready to prepare fully for the 2024 season, and able to take joy in where he is.
“Enjoy the experiences, enjoy this lifestyle, and enjoy the fans,” said Whitlock. “That’s what I can just take out of [this year] the most.”