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2023 In Review: Tanner Houck, Reliever Extraordinaire?

Tanner Houck struggled a bit in a season in which he was mainly in the rotation. Is this a sign to move him back to the bullpen, or does he just need more time?

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

2023 In One Sentence

Tanner Houck, once a solid reliever, endured a scary facial fracture and gutted out a season in the rotation with mixed results, and since he’s still young and has potential to grow his skills, his future role in the organization is up for debate.

The Positives

During a June 16 romp of the Yankees, Tanner Houck and the Red Sox were up twelve runs and three outs shy of a decision that would have elevated his season record to 4-6. He ended up taking a Kyle Higashioka line drive directly to the face. This is not a positive, of course — not anywhere close to one — but the fact that he was back on the mound two months later and appeared unfazed certainly was, and it speaks to Houck’s toughness.

The 2017 first-round draft pick was in the top eleventh percentile of pitchers in ground ball percentage in 2023 according to Baseball Savant. Despite the injury, he also reached 100 innings for the first time in his career, which is collateral from being in the rotation, but it’s still nice to know he has some stamina* (asterisk to be explained in next section...)

The Negatives

Tanner, 27, had the highest ERA of anyone on the starting staff at 5.01. If you split his 2023 into before injury and after injury, the difference in this stat is negligible. His strikeout percentage also shrunk from 30.5% in 2021 to 21.4% in 2023. The most glaring issue of Houck’s, though, is that he may be being used incorrectly. Take his stats the first time through a batting order: hitters slashed .212/.307/.333 against him, he struck out 46 batters in 43 13 innings, and his ERA was 2.91. The second time is a bit less flashy: 4.03 ERA, .272/.328/.432 in 44 23 innings. The third time is unwatchable: 12.74 ERA, .307/.376/.560 that includes 4 home runs and 8 walks in just 17 23 innings. That this has been a trend that actually was worse in 2022, when there was evidence of it from a relief and starting standpoint, and the fact that it dates back to his rookie year should be indicative of a change that needs to be made.

Best Moment

It’s always nice seeing a pitcher get out of an inning after finding themselves waist deep in quicksand, and none did this as well as Tanner Houck did on August 27, in the very first inning against the Dodgers. If you feel like you’ve seen an article on this inning before on this site, it’s because you have. I know I often implore you all to read Jacob Roy’s anatomy of an inning series, but this one — Houck’s performance and Jacob’s breakdown of it — is particularly good. I am going to refer to the Jason Heyward at-bat, specifically for Houck’s pitch selection and his decisions on when to throw way outside to fool the seasoned veteran.

The Red Sox would go on to lose that game 7-4, and Houck would last just four innings, but hey, that’s why the next question is so imporant.

The Big Question

So, is Houck a reliever or a starter?

Probably a reliever, to the chagrin of brass that swore they had him tapped as a starter, and likely to the dismay of Houck himself. Obviously, when he was picked (by Dave Dombrowski, by the way...) in 2017 and brought through the minors in a little over two years until his debut in 2020’s mess of a season, he was unequivocally a starter. But, when stats across three seasons are as clear-cut as Houck’s are, it’s time for a change. If I’m Craig Breslow, I’m putting him in the bullpen to pitch 2-4 innings a couple times a week and building a rotation durable enough so that he won’t need to make many — if any — starts.

Although we’re more than a calendar year removed from his campaign as the Red Sox’s primary closing option for a portion of 2022 (when he appeared automatic) that was still only 18 months ago, and time is on Houck’s side — and the fact that he’s under team control for two more seasons is something that’s on Boston’s side.

2024 and Beyond

Houck has shown flashes of brilliance early in his career, and, even with the stumbles, longer stretches of reliability. With Craig Breslow’s commitment to building a reliable pitching staff –- I mean, he’s got to right? He’s watched this team the last couple of years — and the knowledge that Houck thrives in the first few innings, comes the realization that what is best for the team is a rotation of arms that are more consistent through six innings, with Houck being used where he’s best. And maybe it’s possible Houck gets moved at the 2025 trade deadline, but with even more hope, I’ll say: it sure would be nice have a better idea of who belongs where in this staff by then. And I’m sure Tanner, who has 41 starts and 33 relief appearances in his career, would be right there with us on wanting to know his place on this team and in this league.