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Scattered thoughts after Tanner Houck’s debut

It was a great outing for the former first round pick.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

This Red Sox season has been a slog despite the fact that the total number of games is well under half of what we’re used to. There’s not one reason for this, but the biggest is definitely that there simply hasn’t been starting pitching. It’s grating to watch Quad-A players with upper-80s velocities throwing three innings per start day after day after day. It just gets old. So when Tanner Houck was set for his debut on Tuesday night in Miami, it was a rare moment of excitement regarding a Red Sox starter, despite very real concerns about his game.

As it turns out, the first start went exceedingly well. The big righty tossed five scoreless innings on 86 pitches (49 strikes), allowing a pair of singles, walking three Marlins and striking out seven. It wasn’t the best of competition — the Marlins are 19th in team wRC+ — but this is a Marlins team on the fast track to October baseball. They are, frankly, much better than Houck’s own team. It was a very, very good debut, and worthy of some scattered thoughts.

  • As I alluded to above, it was just nice to see a pitcher with big-time stuff who is able to go more than a couple innings at a time. Even Martín Pérez, who has been Boston’s best pitcher this year, isn’t really a stuff guy. It was a breath of fresh air, and would have been even if the results weren’t as strong as they ended up being. There’s something to be said about the basic idea of putting quality talent out on the field for fans to watch.
  • It was also a breath of fresh air to see a Red Sox player make his debut and do so successfully. Obviously one start will not clear the slate of the organization’s pitching development track record, but it’s nice to know it’s possible for a pitcher to come up and actually look good. This was the team’s best starting pitcher debut since Eduardo Rodriguez back in 2015.
  • I think the thing that impressed me the most, beyond any of Houck’s individual pitches, was his poise. Even in an empty stadium, it’s intimidating facing major-league hitters for the first time. (I mean, I assume.) There were a few times when things could have gone south, including after his first base runner in the second, but Houck never let things come close to getting out of control. The best instance of this was in the fourth when he threw what was clearly a first-pitch strike to Brian Anderson that was called a ball. It wouldn’t have been out of the question for a rookie to let that ruin the at bat. Houck ended up with the strikeout anyway.
  • Along those same lines, I really wonder how this game goes if Corey Dickerson doesn’t try to stretch what looked like a routine single into a double to start the game. If Houck starts with a base runner rather than getting that gift of a first out right off the bat, there’s a chance things pile up. To be fair, nothing Houck did suggests that would’ve happened, but still it was an absolute gift from Dickerson, and really an inexplicable decision.
  • Alright, let’s talk about the stuff. The fastball was Houck’s most-used pitch, and it was mostly good. He came out firing, sitting 95-96 in the first couple innings. The velocity did tail off fairly quickly, getting down to 91-93 for his last couple of frames. Even with the deminished velocity, though, he was getting outs. The command came and went on the pitch, but when he was locating it early it was nasty. Look at this one to Jesús Aguilar, and also the face at the end of the at bat.
  • The star of the show was very much the slider, which was nasty. There were a couple of rough ones that got away, but for the most part it was very, very good. Houck clearly used the breaking ball as his out pitch, and it’s not hard to see why given the movement on the offering. Per Baseball Savant, he got whiffs on 45 percent of the swings against the slider. He was also using it fairly well against lefties. The pitch should be able to work pretty well against them if he can consistently get it down at their feet, but that’s easier said than done and he’s had issues with that in the minors.
  • Speaking of lefties, the biggest question coming into the game for Houck was how he’d perform against lefties. It’s been the big question for his entire pro career, and he ditched his changeup for a splitter this summer to try and find a new approach. We didn’t really see the split very much, though, as he only threw seven on the night. When he did throw them, though, it still very much looked like a work in progress. By my count only one was really effective when he got Dickerson to get out in front and weakly line out to shortstop. Other than that, the command looked way off.
  • Getting back to what I was talking about at the top about how nice it was to see a real starting pitcher, this was the third best start of the season by a Red Sox pitcher by Game Score, one point behind the top two, which are tied at 68. It is also the only start among the top nine that was not made by Pérez or Nathan Eovaldi. Game Score is far from a perfect measure, but it accurately tells both how impressive this debut was and how bad the starting pitching has been this year.
  • Houck could have reasonably been sent out for the sixth after a nine-pitch fifth had him finish with just 86 pitches. I was good with the move, though. The sixth had the two, three and four hitters coming up for the third time, and you never know what is going to happen in that third time through, particularly with Houck’s splitter not really showing much. There is something to be said about letting the rookie get some confidence and build on that for the rest of the year and heading into 2021. That’s the focus here.
  • All of this being said, one start did not change my long-term outlook on Houck all that much. I still think this is a reliever, but one who can very well play an important role in a playoff bullpen. The fastball command could use a little work, but that pitch along with the slider is nasty. I need to see a lot more out of the splitter to believe in him as a starter, though, and the fastball velocity ticking down by the fourth wasn’t great. That said, I’m absolutely on board for seeing if they can develop that third pitch for a little while longer.
  • To finish it out, Houck was also playing for charity and will continue to do so for all of his starts. Very cool stuff right out the gate for the 2017 first round pick.