The Red Sox are in the midst of a difficult portion of their schedule, fighting for a wild card spot. It’s an uphill battle with the team hovering between four and five games back and multiple teams to jump in the schedule. All season, the message has been “Hang around until we get healthy, and then make a move”. Now, the team is healthy and the move hasn’t happened. Part of the issue is the starting rotation.
In August, when the Red Sox have played their tails off to come from behind for s Wild Card spot. in their 25 games going into Monday night, their starting pitchers have completed 6 innings 7 times, ave. (4.6 IP per start, Bello 6+). No wonder BP sometimes "implodes"— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) August 28, 2023
Tanner Houck is one arm that’s notably had trouble going through the lineup multiple times. Part of the issue with Houck is a lack of quality offerings. He’s tried adding a cutter with some success but still relies heavily on his sinker and slider. Let’s take a look at an inning from his last start to see who he is now and where he can go from here.
August 27, 2023. Top of the first inning. As clean an inning as you can get.
AB #1: Mookie Betts
Houck starts Mookie off with his sinker, his primary fastball to righties. It misses inside for ball one.
Another sinker, this time over the outside corner to even the count.
A third sinker that Mookie punches into left field for a base hit. Not particularly hard contact, but he’s going to put that ball in play almost every time, especially given how hot he is right now.
AB #2: Freddie Freeman
Houck has struggled against lefties this year (.858 OPS). This season, he’s added a cutter that he’s throwing to lefties 25% of the time, and while the movement on the pitch isn’t great, it’s performed well.
Here, he throws that cutter and leaves it up and over the plate. He looks as if he was looking to throw it back door, but it catches too much of the plate and Freeman drives it to the wall for a double.
AB #3: David Peralta
With runners on second and third with nobody out, Houck is basically just playing damage control. Ground balls are good, strikeouts are better. He’s trying to avoid hard-hit balls that only compound the damage.
Slider down and in for called strike one. Free real estate.
Another slider, even further down and in. Peralta is way out in front of it. It’s interesting to note that the second pitch has more movement both horizontally and vertically in the first It’s hard to say if that’s intentional, but it’s not out of the question that he’s using a tighter slider for a called strike, and a more lively one for whiffs. Either way, after a swing that ugly, it makes sense to go to the same thing in an 0-2 count.
And right on cue, Peralta takes the bait and whiffs. Huge first strikeout.
AB #4: Max Muncy
With one out, the situation is pretty much the same. Keep the ball down and try to avoid a fly ball. Muncy is known to try to pull everything, so keeping the ball away from him is also a good idea.
Slider misses for ball one.
Cutter this time, again outside. In each of the first two pitches, Muncy appeared to be ready to hit. Houck should know this and be careful with first base open.
Another slider that misses away. At 3-0 with two runners on, he may as well just put him on base.
And he does. Free passes are never great, but it’s not the end of the world here. At least it sets up a double play.
AB #5: Jason Heyward
Houck starts off Heyward by committing a pitch clock violation. 1-0.
He then throws a sinker to even the count. Interesting as he rarely throws the sinker to lefties, but after a four-pitch walk I don’t hate going back to something he knows he can command.
Yet another slider down and inside for a swing and miss to get to 1-2. As I said with Peralta, with two strikes, it makes sense to double up on the slider down and in.
Another sinker down and away. At first glance, this didn’t make a ton of sense to me given how poorly Houck’s sinker has faired against lefties (1.313 SLG) so I decided to do some digging. Here’s what I found.
Against sinkers on the outer half, Heyward has pretty consistently pounded them into the ground. It’s not a huge sample, but it’s enough to assume Houck is looking for a double-play ball. Following a horribly ugly swing, I don’t fully agree with the call, but with another lefty on deck, it’s understandable. Either way, this one is too far outside to get a swing.
That’s more like it. Back to the slider at his feet that gets the whiff. That’s two down without allowing a run.
AB #6: James Outman
With two outs, Houck can pitch a little more freely. He doesn’t need to try to induce a ground ball or look for the punchout. All the outs count the same with two down.
Another sinker down in the zone for called strike one.
And another sinker. This time, Outman appears to be looking for something else as he takes the pitch up in the zone. Houck gets away with missing his spot, brings the count to 0-2, and is just one strike away from getting out of the jam.
Part of what makes breaking down these at-bats so fun is dissecting the game of cat and mouse between the pitcher and hitter. Outman came into this at-bat after watching both Peralta and Heyward get slider after slider at their feet. After strike one, Outman is expecting the slider and takes strike two. Surely, this time Houck will throw him the slider, right?
Wrong. It’s another sinker that Outman weakly grounds up the middle with a defensive swing. After two fastballs, “the book” says to throw an off-speed pitch out of the strike zone, but you can’t always pitch by the book. Houck does his own thing by throwing a third fastball to end the inning.
The Dodgers started six lefties against Houck on Sunday. He’ll likely continue to see lineups stacked with lefties while he has poor platoon splits. In this outing, he went to the slider for swings and misses. Sliders typically don’t perform well against opposite-handed hitters; many pitchers will abandon them for this reason. Houck’s slider is good enough that it can be a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not enough on its own. He’ll need to improve his fastball or develop another pitch to get lefties out. If he can’t, he could benefit from being the bulk guy following an opener, or settle for an extended relief role.