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Red Sox Top Prospect Voting: Tanner Houck looks to prove 2020 was no fluke

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He wins a blowout vote for the number eight spot.

New York Yankees v. Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

For the second straight vote, we have a player who we actually got to see play in 2020 make it into our community top prospects list. Bobby Dalbec ended up squeaking by with a victory in the last round of voting, making him number seven on our list and the fifth position player already. This time around we went back to the pitching well, and did so with one of the biggest blowouts I can remember in this series, at least dating back the last few years since I’ve been in this position. It was Tanner Houck taking home the number eight spot with a whopping 80 percent of the vote.

Houck was the second first-round pick made by the Dave Dombrowski-led front office, and he immediately fit the bill for what we were expecting from a Dombrowski-led group in the draft. In his days in Detroit he always seemed to have a thing for hard-throwing righties with reliever risk, and that was exactly what Houck was in 2017 coming out of the University of Missouri. In college, he had been a starter, but between his delivery and his two-seam oriented repertoire, many saw him heading to a late-inning role before he made it to the bigs.

The Red Sox, of course, had other ideas. They kept him as a starter, and as is always the case for a college pitcher in his first summer as a pro he pitched short outings in Lowell to start his career in 2017. Over 10 starts and 22 13 innings, he was encouraging, pitching to a 3.63 ERA with 25 strikeouts and eight walks. That was a good enough performance that they were willing to push the then-22-year-old to High-A Salem for his full-season debut.

New York Yankees v. Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

It was here in 2018 that the Red Sox started experimenting with some things with Houck. Leading up to that first full season, Boston was trying to make it easier for him to stick as a starter, changing up his mechanics and trying to get him to rely more on his four-seam than the two-seam. The changes didn’t really take. Over his first 11 starts he had pitched to a 6.16 ERA with just about as many walks as strikeouts. The plan wasn’t working. So as the year went on their lightened up on the alterations and he started to pitch better.

Now heading into 2019, there were still some questions with Houck. He was clearly more comfortable with a hybrid between the way he pitched in college and the way the Red Sox wanted him to throw, but it also led to more reliever risk. Despite that, he was still starting as he began that season in Portland. Things were up and down in Double-A, and over 17 appearances (15 starts and two stints out of the bullpen) he pitched to a 4.25 ERA with 80 strikeouts over 82 23 innings.

Midway through the season, he was promoted to Pawtucket where he pitched primarily out of the bullpen. According to the team, this was not the final role for Houck, but they felt like he could potentially help him in the majors in that role in that season and wanted to get him set for that role just in case, with an eye on returning him to the rotation in 2020. Many, myself included, did not buy that. He looked well enough in Pawtucket’s bullpen (and he did make a pair of starts there as well) with a 3.24 ERA, but the big-league club fell out of the race and so Houck never got that call up.

True to their word, Boston shifted the big righty back to a starting role in 2020, but then COVID didn’t allow him to pitch in organized ball for most of the summer. He was, however, at the Alternate Site, and was showing out there. Along with Jarren Duran, Houck was one of the biggest positive stories to come out of Pawtucket, and he did eventually get his chance at the end of the year. We know what happened then. He was incredible. It was only three starts, but he pitched to a 0.53 ERA over 17 innings of work with 21 strikeouts and nine walks, solidifying himself as a major-leaguer and creating all kinds of excitement for the year to come.

As far as the scouting goes, there are still some questions for Houck, but the positives are readily apparent as well. The former first rounder has incredible stuff, particularly with his top two pitches. He throws both his two-seam and four-seam fastball, with the former having good movement and the latter being a bit flatter but also hitting the high 90s. And then his slider has gotten comps to Chris Sale’s from the right side. That might be a little much, but it’s an outstanding pitch. That baseline is enough that people, including yours truly, are as confident as ever that he can at least be a good reliever at the highest level.

There are still, however, some concerns that he may top out as a reliever. For one thing, the mechanics are still an issue, albeit less of one than they were when he was first drafted. More importantly, there are still major questions about Houck’s third pitch and his ability to get lefties. He was great in those three starts last summer, but he also threw only a handful of splitters, a new pitch he was using to replace his changeup. His back-foot slider got a few lefties, but over a larger sample he’ll need that splitter to develop. If it doesn’t, he probably has to shift to the bullpen. But if it does turn into even an average pitch, he should have a future as a starter in this league.

In the shorter term, Houck is expected to start 2021 in Triple-A if everyone stays healthy in the projected big-league rotation. It seems silly to start him there after what he did last season, but there are valid reasons for it. For one thing, he has an option, and they want to keep as much depth on hand as possible. On top of that, and probably more importantly, he needs to work on that offspeed pitch against real competition. Even if he does start in Worcester, though, Houck will get his chance to show 2020 was no fluke, and likely sooner rather than later.

Here is our list so far:

  1. Triston Casas
  2. Jeter Downs
  3. Bryan Mata
  4. Jarren Duran
  5. Gilberto Jimenez
  6. Noah Song
  7. Bobby Dalbec
  8. Tanner Houck

Now, you can head down into the comments and vote for the number nine prospect. As a reminder, to do this you go down below and find the comment from me corresponding with the player for whom you’d like to vote. When you find said player, just click the “rec” button, and that will count your vote. To do this, you will need to be logged in as a member of the site. If you’d like to vote for a player who is not listed, just leave a comment saying “Vote for ___ here” and I’ll rec the comment to count your vote. We encourage discussion, of course, but please don’t comment under specific players’ names. Instead, scroll to the bottom to start a new comment thread in order to keep the players at the top of the comment section. Until next time...