Ok, I'm getting ahead of myself - it's tough to call anyone a breakout performer after facing a grand total of four batters over three appearances. Still, after spending eight years in the minor leagues, Tommy Hottovy has already had an impact in his first weekend, and has positioned himself to take a permanent role in the Red Sox 2011 bullpen.
I'm assuming that most of you who are here know the general background story. If not, Peter Abraham of the Globe will fill you in here. It's a good write-up that I encourage you to read, but if you'd like the condensed version, Hottovy was a 4th round pick of the Red Sox in 2004 as a starting pitcher out of Wichita St, and made it to the AA Portland Sea Dogs by 2006. He stayed in Portland a very, very long time, interrupted by a 2008 Tommy John surgery.
In 2009, unable to distinguish himself as a starter, he began to work his way back through the bullpen. He gradually lowered his arm angle until reaching the sidearm delivery he now employs. Over two minor league stops this year, he pitched 27 innings, allowing only 16 hits and 5 walks, and striking out 28. So when Rich Hill blew out his arm last week, the Red Sox turned to Hottovy not as a reward for his perseverance, but because they needed a good pitcher.
While it's too early to proclaim Hottovy the new Jesse Orosco, the early returns are good.
On Friday, Hottovy came in with the Sox losing 6-5 with two outs in the sixth inning and Coco Crisp on first base to face David DeJesus. After a Crisp stolen base, Hottovy got a routine 4-3 groundout. The Red Sox came back to win 8-6.
On Satruday, Hottovy came in with a 5-3 lead in the 7th, with men on first and second and only one out, again facing David DeJesus. Again, Hottovy induced a ground ball, this time for a 6-4-3 double play to keep the Red Sox in the lead. After some fireworks, the Red Sox won in the 14th inning 9-8.
On Sunday, Hottovy entered again in the 7th, this time with a 6-3 lead and Cliff Pennington on first base. After walking Ryan Sweeney, David DeJesus came up as the tying run. For the third straight day, he got a ground ball out of DeJesus for another 4-3 put out. The Red Sox won 6-3 to complete the sweep.
So, while it will be interesting to see how all of the American League hitters who are not named David DeJesus fare against Hottovy, it's clear that Francona has the confidence to put him into high leverage situations. He should get plenty of chances when Boston travels to Yankee Stadium this week - the Yankees have no shortage of lefties (as well as a couple switch hitters who it would be sensible to turn around - Jorge Posada is 0 for 27 against lefties this year), and Hottovy is the only southpaw in the bullpen. While the lefty-one-out-guy may not be my favorite part of the game, it's nice to see Hottovy succeeding in the role.
The next test may be to use Hottovy against some righties, possibly in some lower leverage situations. Francona, to his credit, has been willing to use his lefthanded relievers as more than one out guys when they prove capable - Hideki Okajima from 2007-09 and Rich Hill earlier this year as prominent examples.
One thing in Hottovy's favor is the lack of obvious internal solutions. Rich Hill is out for the year. Hideki Okajima's stuff has devolved past the point of the Red Sox having any confidence in him. The Red Sox are committed to keeping Andrew Miller in the minors as they try to reconstruct his delivery. Franklin Morales has walked 5.2 per 9IP for his career. Felix Doubront is probably the next best choice, but it's hard to pull the trigger on making a successful minor league starter into a major league reliever when he is only 23 - if his future isn't as a starter with Boston, he may have more value in a trade. In that case, it probably makes sense to continue to have him showcased on regular rotation in Pawtucket.
This all adds up to be what should be a significant opportunity for Hottovy to prove himself. After eight years in the organization, he's earned it.