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One Big Question: Can Tanner Houck find a way to get through lineups three times?

At least some of the time?

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MLB: Cleveland Indians at Boston Red Sox Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Tanner Houck.

The Question: Can Tanner Houck go deeper into games?

I've written a couple of these One Big Question articles already, and this one was the most obvious one to sit down and start typing. I think we’re all pretty well aware of the big speed bump that Tanner Houck has been running into for his entire career and plenty in 2021, because one, it stood out quite a bit to anyone watching his starts, but also two, it was brought up on almost every broadcast for his starts. The third time through the order has had a tendency to smack Houck in the face like a Mike Tyson haymaker, when the righty was even allowed to dabble that deep into a game that is. However, even in today’s era of deep bullpens and quick hooks, to be an effective starter for the Red Sox Tanner Houck needs to figure out a way to navigate through the third time through the order at least some of the time or he will likely have to shift to a bullpen role full-time.

This past season, Houck was purely dominant his first time going through an opposing lineup, pitching to a 1.50 ERA, while allowing a minuscule .194 batting average against across 30 innings. Things weren’t quite as strong the second time through, but the now-25-year-old was still very effective posting a 3.81 ERA while allowing a .235 batting average against in 26 innings. Then we get to the third time through through, which granted is a tiny sample hardly worth considering of 2 23 innings, but Houck was hammered for an ERA of 27.00 a .467 batting average against. Perhaps most notably, the righty allowed as many homers in these situations as in the 56 innings pitched the first two times through the order combined.

Again, this is a very small sample but even that fact also speaks to a larger picture that more often than not, Houck simply wasn’t even given the leash to attempt to navigate through the third time through the order in the first place. Of the seven pitchers who started at least nine games for the Red Sox in 2021, Houck ranked dead last in innings per start. Simply put, if Houck wants to remain a part of the Red Sox rotation he has to find a way to get deeper into his starts, which first means earning the trust to even get the chance to show he can go deeper into games.

There would appear to be a potential solution for this issue for Houck right in at his fingertips (pun intended) — his splitter. Coming into 2021 there was a lot of buzz about Houck’s splitter, a pitch he had started throwing in spring training of 2020 prior to COVID delaying the start of the season to replace his changeup. He was finally able to deploy it in a small fashion in 2020, showing some flashes but really barely utilizing the offering.

In 2021, he deployed the pitch more often, more than doubling the usage up to seven percent, per FanGraphs’ pitch tracking, but overall still kept its usage low. It’s possible that 2021 being the former first round pick’s first full season with the pitch he was still feeling it out, but it’s clear he needs to use it more. It’s a simple baseball truism that more pitches allows a pitcher to more comfortably face the same batter multiple times, and the splitter specifically can help Houck’s issues against left-handed batters.

Now, individual pitch statistics are always a bit shaky as no pitch is thrown in a vacuum, and specifically with his splitter the sample is small. All that said, statistically there seems to be some building blocks. Of his entire arsenal, this splitter had the lowest batting average against by a wide margin, 100 points better than his slider’s batting average against of .159. It also had the second best whiff rate (36.8 percent) to his slider (42.4 percent) and a nearly identical putaway rate (25 percent) to his slider (25.3 percent). Again, this is not to say that the splitter is as good or better than the slider, but there does appear to be something with which he can work.

Through Houck’s first two stints in the majors, he’s been mainly been a two-pitch pitcher, which is the main reason he has struggled to get deep into ball games and why many still believe he is ultimately destined for the bullpen. To be an effective major league starter, it really helps to have that third pitch, and Houck has it right now available to him in his arsenal. Now he just needs to get more comfortable with it and utilize it more often.

Thank you to FanGraphs and Baseball Savant for statistics in this post.