Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Tanner Houck.
The Question: Can Tanner Houck develop his splitter into a usable pitch?
Sometimes when I’m putting these posts together, I spend more time actually thinking of the question itself than I do going through the research process. I pore over FanGraphs and Baseball Savant pages, and scouting reports for prospects, looking for something interesting to watch for in the upcoming season. For some, there are so many options that it’s hard to narrow it down. For others, there are so few options that it feels like you have to pull something out of thin air. And then there’s Tanner Houck, for whom I knew the question as soon as I saw it was his name coming up next on the list. It would be oversimplistic to say this splitter development is all that matters for Houck in 2021, and that’s certainly not true. But it’s without a doubt the most important thing, and the thing that the coaches will all be looking for out of him.
In the Abyss Of Sadness that was the 2020 Red Sox season, Houck represented one of the lone reasons to be excited about the team. As Ben Carsley put in his Red Sox essay in this year’s Baseball Prospectus Annual, if someone was forcing you at gunpoint to watch portions of the 2020 Red Sox, you would absolutely choose those three starts Houck made to end the season. He was, in a word, electric. Yes it was only three starts and 17 innings, but he faced three playoff teams and allowed just one earned run (plus another unearned run) to go with 21 strikeouts and nine walks. It was a revelation, not only compared to the other conga line-feeding pitchers the team used all season, but also compared to the recent pitchers to come up through the farm.
And so it might come as a surprise after how impressive he looked that he is likely heading to Triple-A to start this season. That’s not set in stone, to be fair, but if I were a comically specific betting man who placed bets on things like the Red Sox fifth rotation spot, I would not put my money on Houck. There are a few reasons for this. The most important is that he has a minor-league option while someone like Nick Pivetta does not, so optioning Houck would provide maximum roster flexibility, an important factor in a season that figures to see even more pitching injuries than normal. There could also be some service time consideration, though I’m really hoping that is not part of the calculation.
But there’s also a legitimate developmental reason to keep Houck down to start the season, which admittedly sounds hollow in this era of service time manipulation. But this isn’t Kris Bryant working on his defense. Houck really does need to sort out his issues with his splitter and make that a viable third pitch before getting up in the majors for good. This isn’t really a new issue for the former first round pick, and the splitter is actually a relatively new solution to the problem. He just started throwing this instead of the changeup last year. But consistently getting lefties out has been an issue over his entire career, and finding a consistent offspeed pitch is the easiest way for him to solve that issue. If he can’t consistently get lefties out, there really isn’t a rotation role for him moving forward.
Now, we should mention that this wasn’t an issue for him last season. He faced 22 lefties down the stretch in 2020, and they hit .111/.273/.167. But that, of course, is a sample so small it is hardly even worth considering. There were some good things in his performance against lefties, to be fair, most notably being his ability to locate his slider such that it lands right at the back foot of the opposing hitter. Given how much this pitch breaks for Houck, it is a nearly impossible pitch to hit when it’s located correctly. The issue is it’s difficult to do that consistently (despite how easy Chris Sale makes it look from the other side), and it really shouldn’t be relied upon as the primary option against opposite-handed hitters. In an ideal world, it’s a nice complement to a good splitter or changeup, but not the main attraction.
The splitter was not really part of Houck’s repertoire at all in that three-start run. As I mentioned above, it was a pitch he had just started throwing, so the lack of confidence was certainly understandable, particularly given the context that he was still shoving without it. But the fact is, according to Baseball Savant he only threw the pitch eight times over the course of those three starts. And for the most part, those pitches were non-competitive, with only a couple even being remotely close to the zone. Again, the sample is so small that it doesn’t really matter beyond it just being another datapoint to show that this pitch needs work.
All of this isn’t to throw cold water on Houck’s performance, to be clear. Even without the splitter, he was electric, and the other three pitches — two different fastballs and a slider — were tremendous. He has the stuff he was advertised as having coming up through the minors, and after seeing him in action I am as confident as ever that he has a major-league future. The question really just comes down to what role he’ll fill. Those three pitches are enough to give him a floor, in my mind, as at least a solid reliever.
But if he wants to stick in the rotation long-term — and he does — then he needs that splitter to show up in camp and, likely, in Worcester to start the season. He needs to get that offspeed pitch to at least an average level so that he can have that weapon against lefties. The good news on that front is Houck has been constantly showing an ability to adjust on the fly throughout his professional career. What’s one more adjustment?