Homegrown Houck is more than a keeper

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  • Tanner Houck
    Tanner Houck
    Baseball player (1996-)

Jan. 14—Tanner Houck has had a fascinating start to his big league career.

The Red Sox first-round pick in 2017, Houck made his debut towards the end of Boston's forgettable pandemic-shortened 2020 season and immediately became one of the year's biggest bright spots. He made three starts down the stretch and went a perfect 3-0 with an 0.53 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 17 innings.

Then in 2021 he made the opening day roster and pitched in three games before a flexor strain sidelined him until July. Upon his return he bounced up and down from Triple-A, not because of poor performance but because the Red Sox were able to take advantage of his minor league options between starts to functionally create a 27th roster spot.

Houck's outings also tended to be short, as he never pitched more than five innings and typically maxed out in the 70-80 pitch range. He usually faced opposing lineups twice, and when the third time through the order came Alex Cora would be out with the quick hook.

Eventually Houck was pulled from the rotation to become an all-purpose bullpen weapon, but he still proved instrumental in helping the Red Sox claw their way into the playoffs down the stretch. His season culminated with a remarkable October run that saw him string together 30 consecutive outs — more than the 27 needed to pitch a perfect game — between the final series of the regular season against the Nationals, the AL Wild Card Game against the Yankees and Game 2 of the ALDS against the Rays.

Regardless of the ups and downs, Houck's overall body of work was impressive. He posted a 3.52 ERA with 87 strikeouts and 21 walks over 69 innings in the regular season, though he did also have a win-loss mark of just 1-5 over 13 starts and five relief outings.

Factoring in his 2020 cameo, his career numbers now stand at 4-5 with a 2.93 ERA, 108 strikeouts and 30 walks over 86 innings, 16 starts and 21 appearances.

All things considered, that's pretty good, right?

At this point it's clear Houck has what it takes to succeed at the big league level. Now the question is whether or not he can refine his craft so he can pitch deeper into games and keep opposing hitters off balance.

With competition expected to be fierce for a spot in the Red Sox rotation, doing so could mean the difference between establishing himself as a big league starter and spending 2022 in the bullpen.

Speaking to WEEI's Rob Bradford on the Live BP Podcast earlier this week, Houck specifically addressed the issue and acknowledged that it has been a major focus of his. Part of the solution, he hopes, is the development of his splitter, which would give him another weapon to help keep batters guessing.

"If you're not adapting and you're just trying to do the same thing over and over, it's not going to work," said Houck, who also throws a sinker, slider and four-seam fastball. "No matter how nasty your stuff is they'll eventually get a hit if you continue to throw the same stuff."

"Adding that split and building the confidence that I did with it this year helps set me up for 2022 because I've shown it can be a good pitch whenever I throw it and whenever I trust it," Houck added later.

Houck said one of his biggest problems in the past has been not having a true secondary off-speed pitch to complement his slider, and until recently the splitter has been too similar in movement and speed to his sinker to be effective. By season's end it had become much more distinct, and now he hopes to use it more often against right-handed hitters, having only thrown 12 to righties last year compared to 73 against lefties.

Having a full four-pitch arsenal at his disposal could be a game-changer, and if Houck can put it all together he could become Boston's first true homegrown starting pitcher since Clay Buchholz more than a decade ago.

Email: mcerullo@northofboston.com.

Twitter: @MacCerullo.

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