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2021 in Review: Tanner Houck can do it all

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The righty took more steps forward in 2021.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to our 2021 Boston Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2021. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at Tanner Houck’s 2021 campaign.

2021 in one sentence

Tanner Houck was deployed in a myriad of ways by Alex Cora in 2021, and was able to rise to the occasion.

The Positives

Boy, that slider looked good. Houck’s best pitch took a step forward in 2021, tallying 41 of his 87 strikeouts with the pitch and throwing it with just shy of 100 rpm (in terms of spin rate) more than he did in 2020. He also allowed a minuscule .159 batting average on the pitch and an even lower expected batting average of .144. Along with his devastating slider, Houck deployed a splitter more often this season, which had tremendous success. Houck debuted the splitter in 2020 but only threw it three percent of the time. He kept working on the grip and release over the offseason and ultimately more than doubled its usage in 2021 to 7.4 percent, and had mountains of success when he did. The splitter finished with a .059 batting average against the pitch and a whiff rate of 36.8 percent, his second-best whiff rate by a pitch only to his slider’s 42.4 percent.

Houck had also historically struggled with walking batters, but in 2021 he was able to get a handle on them and post his lowest walk rate at any level. In 2020 Houck walked 4.76 batters per nine, and in 2021 he reduced it to 2.74, a full two walks lower than his season prior. That is no small feat.

Also a positive, was Houck’s usage. Alex Cora used Houck primarily as a starter (13 of his 18 appearances) but Cora showed no hesitation in sending Houck out in long relief or in high leverage situations. Houck posted a 3.68 ERA in 58 innings as a starter and a 2.61 mark in 10 innings as a reliever.

The Negatives

The well-documented third time through the order. This isn’t a surprise if you watched any of Houck's starts, as he was often pulled prior to the third time through the order, even when he wasn’t really struggling. In total, he only threw 2 23 innings the third time through the order, but even in that tiny sample size, he was atrocious. He allowed nine runs, eight of those earned, a tight 27.00 ERA, and was hammered to the tune of a .467 batting average.

In comparison, Houck threw 30 innings through the order the first time and allowed only five runs total. It’s pretty difficult to continually toss a pitcher out there every fifth day that you can only pencil them in for 4 innings pitched because of the cumulative stress that puts on the bullpen leading to overuse of some arms as we saw in 2021. If Houck is to be a starter, he has to be able to get into the fifth inning and beyond on a consistent basis.

The Big Question

Can Tanner Houck develop his splitter into a usable pitch?

We talked about this a bit above, but yes he did. There’s probably still more development needed with the pitch to get to a point when he can throw it in nearly any count, but he took a step forward with the offering. That said, it still didn’t help his third time through problem, so that could be the next step for the pitch.

2022 and Beyond

With the recent departure of Eduardo Rodriguez to the Detroit Tigers, the Red Sox have plenty of openings in the starting rotation. Since Houck has already been mostly deployed as a starter, he should be squarely in the mix to open 2022 in the rotation. If Houck can be an effective starter, which I think he can be, then beyond 2022 that is exactly where he’ll remain. If I’m wrong, which I will begrudgingly admit I have been before, there’s also a decent sample size of success as a reliever to fall back on. Either as a starter or a reliever, Tanner Houck's outlook for 2022 and beyond is being an important piece of the puzzle for Alex Cora.