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2022 in Review: Tanner Houck’s Slider Slaps, But Is That Enough?

With big ups to his nasty slider, Tanner Houck cemented a late-inning relief role before an injury cut his season short, but his long-term role is still up in the air.

Cincinnati Reds vs. Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome back to our 2022 Boston Red Sox in Review series. We’re changing things up a bit this year. For this series, we will only be including players on the active roster, per FanGraphs’ RosterResource page, who had at least 50 plate appearances or 20 innings pitched at the MLB level in 2022. That means no pending free agents or players on the 40-man but not on the MLB roster, with a couple exceptions. These will be rolling out over the next few months, so stay tuned. Today, we will take a look at Tanner Houck’s 2022 campaign.

2022 in One Sentence

In an injury shortened campaign, Tanner Houck started in the rotation and was eventually moved to the bullpen, a seemingly better fit for someone who has yet to improve his repertoire beyond a sensational slider and speedy fastball.

The Positives

Tanner Houck still seems to be figuring out who he is as a pitcher, but despite that uncertainty, there is one thing he can rely on: his slider. Regardless of what role he’s being asked to play for the Red Sox or what he’s trying to do to improve other parts of his game, when he tosses that slide piece toward home plate, special and physics-defying things happen.

Houck’s slider remained one of the best pitches on the Red Sox’s entire roster in 2022, tying for seventh in pitch value with Michael Wacha’s cutter among among Red Sox pitchers. His slider also had more spin than any of his other offerings in 2022, although that’s nothing new. And hhe had a 33.6 percent strikeout rate with it, far surpassing his marks with his fastball and sinker. (He did have a higher strikeout rate with his splitter, but he threw 55 of those all season).

Speaking of pitch frequency, Houck shrewdly dialed up his slider more often than ever in 2022, throwing it more than 40 percent of the time and more than any of his other pitches, including his fastball, which was his most used selection in 2021 and 2020.

Baseball Savant

As you’ll notice in the chart above, Houck’s sinker usage also ticked up in 2022, which is at least partially responsible for Houck’s increased groundball rate, as he got batters to go worm hunting more than 50 percent of the time they made contact, setting a career-high and ranking fourth on the Red Sox among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched in 2022.

In addition to inducing more ground balls than ever, Houck also did a stand-up job of avoiding the barrel of opposing batters’ lumber, something he struggled with in 2021. Overall, he had a barrel rate of 4.9 percent, which ranked in the 86th percentile in MLB and was more than three percent lower than a year ago.

By ducking barrels and getting more ground balls, not to mention by throwing more sliders, Houck had generally favorable run prevention numbers, posting a 3.15 ERA and 3.30 FIP across 60 innings, doing most of that work in the bullpen after starting the year in the rotation. The move to relief may have helped Houck’s ability to turn up the heat, as his fastball velocity jumped by nearly an entire mile per hour, sitting a smidge above 95. In fact, Houck’s move to relief may have actually been for the best, as he was actually a bit better in the bullpen than the rotation.

The Negatives

For how great his slider is and how hard he can throw, Houck’s fastball wasn’t all that impressive in 2022. Perhaps that’s why he shied away from throwing it as often, but despite hitting 95 on the gun most of the time, Houck’s four-seam fastball had relatively little spin and had the worst run value of any of his pitches, with batters producing a .341 wOBA against it, which is quite the jump from the .307 mark he logged in 2021. Meanwhile, while his sinker was more effective and his splitter led to its relatively fair share of strikeouts, Houck’s non-slider offerings as a whole could use improvement.

Cleveland Guardians v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Regardless of what he’s throwing, Houck does need to pound the zone a bit more than he did in 2022. Only 45.8 percent of his pitches were in the zone compared with the league average of 48 percent and he threw a strike on his first pitch more than eight percent less often than the MLB average. On the plus side, batters made contact when chasing pitches against Houck less than 50 percent of the time, but with a roughly league average chase rate, Houck didn’t entirely benefit from trying to expand the zone so often. Without those perks, Houck’s previously stellar strikeout rate took a dive to 22.7 percent from 30.5 percent in 2021, while his walk rate rose to 8.9 percent from 7.4 percent.

Houck also proved that just avoiding barrels isn’t enough, as he was actually hit harder overall in 2022 than he was in 2021 despite that elite barrel rate we talked about earlier, ranking in the 36th percentile in hard hit rate and the 18th percentile in average exit velocity.

Of course, Houck also had to deal with some negatives outside of his own control, as a inflammation in his back caused him to hit the injured list in early August and ultimately lose the rest of the campaign. He also missed a series in Toronto at the end of April, but that seems like it was within his control.

Best Game or Moment

If we go by win probability added, Houck’s best game of the season was actually his last, as he earned a five-out save against the World Series champion Houston Astros on Aug. 2, but the best game by my estimation was Houck’s four-inning domination of the Seattle Mariners in relief on May 19. Relieving Rich Hill after only two innings and with the Red Sox down 4-2, Houck sliced through the Mariners’ lineup to allow the Red Sox time to collect themselves and eventually mount a surge to claim a 12-6 victory. Houck struck out six batters and allowed just one hit and one walk in those four innings, earning a win in the process.

The Big Question

Can Tanner Houck find a way to get through lineups three times?

Houck didn’t get much of a chance to prove this in 2022, as he only made four starts and pitched more than two innings nine times. Even with such little data to work with, the numbers don’t indicate that he was just a victim of a lack of opportunity. As a starter, he had a 7.71 ERA in seven innings the second time through the order and a 27.00 ERA in 23 of an inning the third time through the order. He also had an 8.44 ERA in 5 13 innings the second time through the order as a reliever. Again, these are really small samples that ultimately don’t mean much, but when combined with his previous struggles, they don’t invoke that much confidence.

2023 and Beyond

As evidenced by his move to and from the rotation the last two years, it still seems like Houck and the Red Sox are trying to figure out who he is as a pitcher. But there is more to this story than just deciding if he should be in the rotation or the bullpen. Over two full seasons and a six-game jaunt in the shortened 2020 campaign, Houck has been pretty solid overall, pitching to a 3.02 ERA — which is right in the ballpark of his 2.95 FIP — across 146 innings. Taken at face value, that’s a good pitcher, but Houck still seems like he could hit another gear and be even better. Whether or not he can actually do so is a question we’ll be asking all winter.

Now, getting back to the starter vs. reliever discussion, a strikingly similar one we had about Garrett Whitlock a few weeks ago, the Red Sox still seem to be on the fence with Houck. As opposed to Whitlock, who the Red Sox have publicly said will start in 2023, Houck will be asked to “prepare to be a starter” with the understanding that things could change. The Red Sox could still use some upgrades on both sides of the pitching coin, so how things shake out in terms of free agent signings will likely dictate what happens with Houck. If they go the bullpen route, Houck would slot nicely as a late inning reliever if not the outright closer, a role he seems destined for with his current repertoire. If they go with him as a starter, he’ll need to once again prove that he has more than just a nasty slider and that he can handle larger chunks of innings. Either way, 2023 will likely be the year Houck’s long-term role is sealed.