On Friday night, after Chris Sale answered his team giving him a two-run lead by giving up five runs of his own including what seemed like a back-breaking grand slam, it was deflating. It was only a three-run game, and this team has proven they shouldn’t be counted out all year, but it really felt like the season was slipping out of our grips. And then the offense came back and made it a blowout. And all of that shouldn’t serve to hide the performance of Tanner Houck, who was the one who allowed the offense to have time in the first place to come back in that game.
While Kiké Hernández had a home run among his five hits to lead the way in a 20-hit, 14-run performance for the lineup, it was Houck that stood out as the star of the game. Coming in for the second inning, he ended up getting the team through the sixth, tossing five very strong outings (including retiring the first 11 batters he faced), allowing just a single run on a homer that barely cleared the fence. It’s still unclear at this point in his career just what Houck’s role is going to be in the long-term, but that’s sort of besides the point for the time being. Right now, especially after watching this outing but really after watching everything he’s done the last two years, it’s clear wherever he ends up, Houck has the goods to be great.
The stuff obviously is where it starts, and it just keeps improving. Even going back to when he was drafted, the stuff was never questioned with his fastball and slider. He’s spent his pro career bouncing between using his four-seam and sinker, but recently he’s found a place where he can use both. On Friday, he threw nine sinkers, seven of which induced swings, and five of which induced whiffs. And his slider was great again, as is typically the case, with one in particular looking like a video game. The right-handed Chris Sale comps seemed ridiculous to me at first just because, well, it’s Chris Sale, but it’s making more sense and appearing less hyperbolic the more time goes on. And, it goes without saying, we’re not talking about the Chris Sale we’ve seen more recently.
But the stuff is only part of why I’m so confident in Houck wherever he ends up, and why his future with this team only seems to be getting brighter and brighter. You need the stuff for a baseline, but when you add Houck’s poise, the ceiling gets harder. This is something I and many others have talked about since his debut, but it hasn’t gone away. He doesn’t seem at all affected by the bright lights.
When he first made his debut in the majors, he looked like he was just playing in a beer league with some buds, with no pressure at all. He started pitching in front of major-league crowds this year, and again was unfazed. And now with the pressure at its highest, he’s been nearly literally perfect. In a must-win game against Washington, he tossed five perfect innings. Then he retired all three batters he faced in the Wildcard Game, before doing what he did today. If there’s a scenario that will throw him off his game, we have yet to find it.
We said above that it’s not worth talking about his future role right now, and in the immediate term it is besides the point. But it is worth mentioning I’m more confident than ever he can indeed start. That’s not to say it’s close to a sure thing, to be clear, but his splitter has taken some real steps forward, especially in the last six weeks or so. He’s also working his two-seam in again, now in harmony with the four-seam, putting in view a legitimate four-pitch mix. Houck still needs to prove he can handle lineups two and three times through on a consistent basis, but it’s easier to see how he can do that now.
But for the time being, I’m left with the original thought I had up top: He’s going to be good wherever he lands. You hear it in sports a lot that sometimes you just know a guy is going to succeed, and it’s always oversimplistic. That’s true here, too, to be fair. It’s not just looking at him and knowing. It’s seeing the results and watching his stuff and seeing how hitters react to that slider. There are tangible things here to hang our collective hats on. But there’s also the intangible, specifically for Houck in his unending poise. When you combine the two things, well, the universe tends to sort the rest out.