Tanner Houck has made two major-league starts in what is on the short list of strangest seasons in the long history of the league. We really have no business trying to make any sweeping judgements based on the outcomes of these two starts given the circumstances, and yet we do, because we’re human. And because there are legitimate takeaways from these outings, even if the numbers may not yet be statistically significant. I still have to mention the numbers, though.
In two starts, Houck has pitched to a 0.00 ERA (that’s perfect, for those new to the sport) over 11 innings, having allowed just a single unearned run on three hits, six walks and 11 strikeouts. His first start against the Marlins was great, his second against the Yankees was probably even more impressive. Between them, the righty became the just the third Red Sox pitcher to allow zero earned runs through his first two appearances, provided those appearances were each at least five innings in length. He should get one more start before the end of the season, and no matter how that one (which would come against a very good Braves lineup who still may be fighting for the NL East title) goes, he’s guaranteed to have more good starts than bad ones in his first taste of the majors. That’s not a small deal!
Watching his two starts, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there was a whole lot more good that stood out compared to the bad. There was some of the latter, which we will get into in a bit, but we’ll start with the good. And specifically, I want to talk about the poise Houck has shown to start his career. That, to me, beyond any of the numbers or specific pitches or anything else has stood out as the most impressive part of this debut. Obviously this is not exactly something we can measure, at least not in this sample, but it’s readily apparent watching the game. Houck handles himself like someone who knows he belongs, which is much easier said than done for a rookie.
Case in point: He had every reason to get rattled on Sunday. He was making his first ever start at Fenway Park. He was facing off against the Yankees, which even with a few key hitters on the bench is filled with intimidating bats. They also happened to come into that game as the hottest lineup in baseball. In the second at bat of the game he had a fastball get away from him that hit Luke Voit in the shoulder and was pretty damn close to the face. Voit, who is quite a large human, stopped for a minute, almost to show the rookie how little he appreciated that pitch. All of that could have derailed any rookie right off the bat, and it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Houck, though, never appeared to get too amped up or get too low. He was steady all afternoon.
The elephant in the room with this entire discussion, particularly the part about it being his Fenway debut, is that there are no fans. (Except for that one guy, but that was after Houck was removed.) Still, one would assume it’s easier to stay even with your emotions when you’re in an empty ballpark, especially when considering the typical atmosphere for a Red Sox-Yankees game. It also helps that the Red Sox are basically not playing for anything right now, so it’s not as if he was thrust into a high-pressure situation. On the other hand, some players need that kind of adrenaline to get going. In all I think it helps Houck and pitchers in his situation, but it’s not a guarantee for everyone by any stretch.
And while I said there aren’t meaningful numbers to support the theory that he has been incredibly poised, it does stand out how well he’s done with runners on base. The easiest way for a rookie to let things get away from him is to let an early runner on base and then have things snowball from there. We’ve seen it from young pitchers in this organization for a long time now. With Houck, he’s shown an ability to pitch a little differently to get out of trouble. The righty goes even more to his two-seam in these situations, particularly with the runner at first, and gets huge ground balls. With the bases empty in his two starts, 35 percent of balls in play have been hit on the ground. With runners on, four out of five balls in play have been hit on the ground, and they’ve all led to double plays. The specific rates here in the tiny samples are less important than the change in approach they reflect. It’s helped him avoid potentially long innings, both in terms of runs and pitches.
I mentioned at the top that it hasn’t all been roses for the righty, and there is still one thing I am concerned about with Houck so far. Coming up from the minors, the biggest worry for him was how he was going to get lefties. And while left-handed hitters have yet to really do much damage in two starts, that concern still exists based on the way he is approaching them.
Right now, for the most part Houck is just going with his four-seamer against lefties. He’s thrown that pitch 43 percent of the time with a lefty at the plate. And the early results overall on the pitch are good with opponents posting a wOBA (on the OBP scale) of .228. However, there is reason to believe he has been lucky based on an expected wOBA (which is based on quality of contact) of .353. You can see from the heat map below that he is leaving the pitch in the middle of the zone a bit too often early on.
Beyond the four-seam, he hasn’t really been using his splitter. Houck had been throwing a changeup to get lefties throughout most of his professional career, but he and the organization scrapped that this year for a new splitter. That one has been thrown only nine times overall (per Baseball Savant) through two starts, with only two on Sunday. His command with the pitch has been way off, and it just doesn’t look ready for action. I’m certainly not going to hit the panic button on this right now since it’s a very new pitch, but the development of that offering is going to be important for his future.
There’s a good argument to be made that Houck’s first two starts are the most exciting thing to happen for the Red Sox in 2020 given how bad the season has been as well as their recent history in homegrown starters. I’m still hesitant to totally buy into his future in the rotation given his approach against lefties still being up in the air, but as I said it’s far too early to throw dirt on the idea as well. And even better is that his poise right off the bat is standing out above any issues he’s shown. He acts like he belongs, and the numbers certainly suggest he’s right. At the very least, that should make one even more confident in his future in whatever role he eventually lands.