A baseball team is only as good as its bullpen. You can score all the runs in the world and boast a dominant starting rotation, but if your relievers keep blowing leads late in ballgames, it’s going to be a long season for everyone involved.
the Red Sox and blue jays are both good baseball teams. They have generational talents like Vladimir Guerrero Jr.. and rafael devers; they have deep lineups bolstered by supplementary bats like Lourdes Gurriel Jr.. and Alex Verdugo; they have frontline starters who get Cy Young votes like Kevin Gaussman and Nate Evaldi.
But both of these AL East playoff hopefuls have the same roster flaw: Neither club has a lockdown bullpen.
While the two other divisions contend, the rays and yankees, have a seemingly never-ending carousel of outstanding relievers, Toronto and Boston have much shallower bullpens. But both the Jays and Sox have a secret weapon, a bullpen special agent they ring up late in games to shut the door and get the job done. toronto has jordan romanand Boston has Garrett Whitlock.
Romano and Whitlock have slightly different roles for their respective clubs — Romano operates as a traditional closer tasked with pitching the ninth inning while Whitlock is used more like a late-game Swiss Army Knife — but both are absolutely indispensable. In fact, Romano and Whitlock were two of the most important relievers in all of baseball last season and should be again in 2022.
To put it plainly: These two arms could determine the fate of the AL East.
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First let’s talk about how I’m measuring “importance.” There’s no perfect way to do this, but as is the case in life, we’ll do our best. I took the bullpen ERA from every 2021 playoff team (and the Blue Jays), subtracted the innings from their “best” arm to get an adjusted ERA and examined the differences. I was as objective as possible about whom the “best” arm on each team was, but here’s what I found.
As you can see, our two bullpen heroes, Romano and Whitlock, come in near the top of the list. Josh Hader is obviously vital to the brewers‘postseason chances, but they have another elite reliever in David Williams and the best rotation in baseball to boot. the braves were heavily reliant on Luke Jackson during the regular season last year, but Atlanta added Colin McHugh and kenley jansen in free agency and should have young fireballer Spencer Strider all year.
Toronto and Boston, on the other hand, didn’t make too many additions to their pens. Boston added lefty flamethrower jake diekman and the long-haired matt strahm, but the majority of the pen is the same. Toronto-signed former stars arm yimi garcia, but that was it. Romano and Whitlock will have to shoulder most of the load yet again.
Let’s talk about Whitlock first, the better known of the two because the Red Sox are more famous, and he pitched in October last season. An 18th-round pick out of UAB in 2017 by the Yankees, Whitlock funneled his way up New York’s system before blowing out and getting Tommy John surgery in the middle of 2019. He rehabbed over the course of the pandemic and was taken by the Red Sox in the 2020 Rule 5 draft without the club having seen him pitch in more than 18 months.
Whitlock made the team out of camp last season, and the rest is history. He became a vital part of Boston’s run to the ALCS, posting a 1.96 ERA in 73⅓ innings, including just two earned runs in 8⅓ postseason frames. That’s not a shabby debut for a rookie.
This year he’s been just as good in the early going, striking out six in 6⅓ innings with just one run allowed. But Whitlock seems to be throwing a completely new slider this season. In 2021, the pitch was in the 84-mph range and had pretty typical characteristics — a slightly below average amount of horizontal movement and an average amount of downward vertical movement — but was incredibly effective thanks to Whitlock’s command of the slider and the way it played off his fastball.
In 2022 so far, the pitch has been a few ticks slower, averaging 81.6 miles per hour, and has notably different movement characteristics. Whitlock’s slider is operating more like a curveball, with a ton of downward movement, but without any vertical break. It’s a fascinating shift, and one that must be somewhat intentional considering how different it looks. Time will tell just how effective the new offering is, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.
Romano’s arsenal so far looks pretty similar to last year’s, with the right-hander relying on a simple but effective fastball-slider combination. The heater sits in the high 90s with the slide-piece registering in the high 80s. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, Romano went to pitch at a junior college in Oklahoma before transferring to Oral Roberts, a Division I program in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Drafted by the Jays in 2014, Romano bounced around in the high minors, getting snagged by the White Sox in the Rule 5 before a stint with Texas and eventually finding his way back to Toronto.
That’s where he flourished, finding a bounce in velocity that allowed him to establish himself as the club’s closer in 2021. As the ninth-inning dude, Romano shined, posting a 2.14 ERA in 63 innings with 23 saves. And now, in 2022, as by far the most reliable member of a flimsy Toronto bullpen, Romano will be tasked with shouldering the load late in games multiple times per week.
This past week, Romano broke the Jays’ record for most consecutive saves converted, passing Tom Henke’s previous mark of 25.
There are many other main characters in baseball’s most dramatic division, but the road to the AL East title, and the pennant, always goes through the bullpens. No two pitchers in the division, and perhaps in the entire league, will have more of a say and shoulder more of the bullpen burden than Romano and Whitlock.
These two Rule 5 picks, passed over and discarded, have rebuilt themselves into flamethrowing, dominant relievers. Should be fun to watch.
Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.
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