In the miserable slog that was the 2020 Red Sox season, there were a few bits of sunshine that were able to sneak their way through, perhaps none more so the performance from Tanner Houck down the stretch. The rookie was down at the Alternate Site in Pawtucket for most of 2020, but Boston brought him up to the majors for the last few turns for the rotation, and he was electric. That has justifiably brought on some excitement as to what he could be able to do in 2021, providing a rare bit of excitement about an in-house pitching option on this roster. There are certainly disagreements about his actual true talent level and what he can provide in the short-term, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t at least somewhat excited about seeing him back on the mound.
We are, of course, only talking about three starts, but it wasn’t just that he was good or showed some flashes in those three starts. Houck was legitimately phenomenal. He started his career with five shutout innings in Miami, then tossed six more innings without allowing a run to the Yankees at Fenway, and finished off his year by allowing just one run on the road over six innings in Atlanta. That’s one run across three starts — with 21 strikeouts and nine walks over 17 innings, to boot — with each start coming against an eventual playoff team. You can slice it whichever way you choose, but that is impressive, and was somehow even more impressive in the moment given the poise he put on display in games where some shakiness would not have only been accepted, but expected.
And so it’s weird saying all of that, and having seen all of that so clearly, but still keep getting the feeling that they are going to put too much on his shoulders for 2021. My feelings on Houck have changed somewhat substantially since seeing him in the majors. I always believed in the stuff, but I didn’t think he had any chance of starting long-term before seeing what he did against those lineups. That’s not to say him sticking in the rotation is a lock, because it’s not, but it’s certainly much more reasonable a stance in my mind than it was before. And as frustrating as it could be after having seen what he did, the way to make those chances as high as possible is to not rush things and not throw him immediately back into the fire.
As things stand right now, Houck is pretty clearly the number three pitcher in this Red Sox rotation, and that’s assuming that Eduardo Rodriguez truly is ready to get back to a normal workload — everything from the organization suggests that’s the case, but it’s still hard to completely buy that until we actually see it — and Nathan Eovaldi is healthy. He is right now, but we all know that can change. The Red Sox, for as bad as they were last year and as little as they’ve done to this point altering the roster, are still shooting for a wildcard spot, and with the right moves over the next month they can be in that conversation. But for both the sake of being the best team they can be over 162 games and also for the sake of Houck’s development, they should not be relying on him as a key figure to that position, but rather as a potential supplementary one.
It can be a fine line to walk sometimes, but it’s important to remember that for as electric as the former first rounder was in those three starts, there is still plenty for him to work on and plenty for him to worry about in 2021. First and foremost is developing that offspeed pitch. Whether it’s the changeup or the splitter — he started throwing the latter in camp last year after leaning on the former previously in his career— he needs to find one with which he’s comfortable. Leading up to his major-league debut, perhaps the biggest concern for the righty was how he’d be able to handle left-handed hitting. It was a problem in the minors and he didn’t have a clear offspeed pitch to counter it. Houck threw only a handful of splitters in the majors, and only one was really all that impressive.
Now, as you can probably tell from the numbers above, this didn’t affect Houck too much in his debut. But it was a very small sample, and this is the kind of issue that can be made worse and worse the more times he faces the same lineup, which of course will happen over the course of 162 games. When he’s locating his slider well and getting it toward the back foot of lefties as he did at times in those three starts, then he can work around the lack of an offspeed weapon. Consistently locating that kind of pitch is much easier said than done, though, unless you’re prime Chris Sale.
And it is largely for this reason that I would very much like to see the Red Sox add two starting pitchers to the mix this winter in order to let Houck start the season in Triple-A Worcester. Most of that is to work on the things that need to be shored up in order to maximize his production not only in the short-term but hopefully as a long-time member of this Red Sox rotation.
And then there are issues of workload — Houck has never thrown more than 119 innings as a pro, and having him as an Opening Day rotation member would clearly be asking for more than that — as well as preserving depth. While I certainly think Houck is a better pitcher right now than Nick Pivetta (who pitched well himself in a few starts down the stretch), the latter is out of minor-league options. The Red Sox will need more than five starters through the year, which means you have to find ways to keep as many pitchers as you can on the roster.
At some point in 2021, Houck is going to get his chance to show 2020 was no fluke, whether it be right away or after a bit of the season has passed. One way or the other, he will leave his mark on the upcoming season. The issue is whether or not he is a major part of the plan or just a bonus. If the Red Sox are in a position where they need him to be outstanding to be competitive, then they are both putting themselves in a tough position as well as putting some undue pressure on a rookie who still has real issues to work through, which would be a result of adding zero, or even only one, starter to the mix. But if they add a couple of pitchers and push him into the minors to start the year, then they are in a position where they can view anything from Houck as something of a bonus. That is the sweet spot, not only for the success of the 2021 Red Sox but also for the development of one of the rare bright spots for their recent pitcher development.