When the Red Sox drafted Tanner Houck in the first round of the 2017 draft, they did so not only because of their sense of what he was but also what he might become — a proposition that harbored both promise and danger.
Baseball is amidst an era of tremendous experimentation. Pitch-tracking and biomechanical data has created not only new ways of evaluating the effectiveness of pitchers, but also of reimagining them. Player development is less passive. Teams don’t merely try to refine strengths so much as they look to create new ones, at a time when players are treated as malleable clay.
And few seem more malleable than Houck.
The 6-foot-5-inch righthander features a funky, cross-body throwing motion from a low three-quarters arm slot that Brian DeLunas — the co-founder of P3, the St. Louis-area baseball facility where Houck has trained since his senior year of high school — saw as having similarities to that of Chris Sale.
Beyond his nasty mid-90s two-seam fastball and sweeping slider — a two-pitch mix that suggested a clear floor of a big league reliever at Missouri — Houck featured additional attributes that suggested the potential for more.
Red Sox area scout Todd Gold, who followed Houck at Mizzou, recalled being struck by what he saw as “Olympic gymnast-level athleticism,” as well as extremely long fingers that seemed suited to gripping a big league-caliber change-up.
Gold also recognized Houck’s intelligence and self-awareness. When Gold talked to Houck before his junior year, the pitcher volunteered that he’d need to develop a change-up as a professional, but had held off on doing so because he wanted to lean on his two established weapons in college in order to best position his team to win.
Houck recognized his responsibility to his college team, while also being secure enough in his strengths to welcome the possibility of trial and error while moving through the minors.
“An athlete like that should be able to make some changes. We didn’t know exactly what that would look like,” said Gold. “[But] we knew how well he could handle adversity, that he was a guy you could experiment with . . . I think that made it a little easier with the guys in player development, knowing that you could take risks on this guy and know you’re not going to ruin him.”
Many teams saw Houck as a reliever. The Sox recognized that possibility, but viewed Houck as particularly attractive given his room for growth beyond a late-innings role.
“There was not only now-stuff but even continued room for expansion of his mix,” said Chris Mears, who in 2017 served as an amateur pitching crosschecker for the Sox and who now serves as a minor league pitching coordinator. “We spent a lot of time talking about it in the draft room.”
After the Sox drafted Houck, they started to discuss some of those potential alterations. Yes, they’d want him to work on his change-up. But they also wanted to see if he could develop a four-seam fastball to work at the top of the zone in addition to his two-seamer at the bottom of it, a combination that helped Corey Kluber emerge as elite.
Houck was incredibly open-minded to the experiments, and, in fact, added to it in the offseason of 2017-18, as he developed a curveball. In an effort to get the right release point for those two new pitches, he raised his arm slot slightly.
DeLunas, who talked with Red Sox officials during that offseason, wondered if the overhaul might be too far-reaching. Sculpting is a wonderful art form, but still comes with the chance of turning a ball of clay into something unrecognizable.
“[The Red Sox seemed] worried a little bit that, a first-round pick, we want him to succeed, [but] we might have to reinvent the wheel here,” said DeLunas, now the Mariners bullpen coach. “It was just not who he was.”
But no untried experiment has ever resulted in successful change. Better, the Red Sox and Houck reasoned, to try to unlock the highest level of performance and fail than to shy away from risk entirely.
That outlook, however, was challenged when Houck began his first full pro season in 2018 with a resounding thud. The Sox assigned him to High-A Salem, where he leaned heavily — almost exclusively at times — on the four-seamer over the two-seamer. Through 11 starts, Houck possessed a 6.16 ERA with nearly as many walks (37) as strikeouts (38) and yielding eight homers in 49⅔ innings.
Yet despite the poor results, Houck was able to maintain perspective on them — they’d been part of an effort to improve in specific areas. The results did not define his abilities. When the Sox freed Houck to go back to his two-seamer as his primary weapon in the second half of 2018, he dominated, with a 2.86 ERA and a better than 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio down the stretch.
Gold met with Houck for lunch after the season, curious whether he’d been deflated by his early struggles.
“It was kind of the opposite,” said Gold. “He was able to go out there, do what he did in the first half of the season that full year, then rebound when they let him throw the two-seamer a little more. The four-seamer got better. He kind of felt like, ‘Now I’ve got an extra pitch.’ ”
Houck has proved similarly open-minded since. He tried to emphasize his change-up as a starter in Double A Portland 2019, even when he couldn’t hold the pitch in the strike zone against lefties. That may have hurt his numbers at times, but represented a commitment in pursuit of development.
When the Red Sox moved him to the bullpen in July with the notion of a potential September call-up, he got shelled in his first outing (six runs, one-third of an inning) but quickly proved resilient in forging a 2.20 ERA over his next 16 appearances in Portland and Pawtucket.
At the alternate site in Pawtucket this year, Houck accepted the Red Sox' challenge to refine his plan of attack against lefties. He worked on his mechanics to create a more consistent line to the plate. He replaced his change-up with a splitter — a natural pitch given his finger length — that spent more time looking like a strike to lefties. He elevated his arm slot slightly to help the splitter play off the release points of his fastball and slider.
He didn’t blink when the team stacked five straight lefties against him in simulated games, throwing a heavy diet of four-seam fastballs on the inner half of the plate in order to refine his command of that pitch. Houck committed himself to a larger purpose rather than immediate results.
“He knew he wanted to go to the big leagues and stay there. He was really receptive and able to focus on, ‘This is what I need to do to get lefties out so I can stay at the major league level.’ There were a couple weeks here that were tough because he was pitching outside his comfort zone,” said Red Sox minor league pitching coordinator Shawn Haviland. “Once it kind of clicked in for him, it was really kind of fun to watch, because then we could give him back his weapons . . . He was born to sink the ball like that. He was born to throw that sweeping slider. We weren’t too concerned that was going to go away.”
As his first two big league starts have shown, those strengths have indeed remained intact, and now are complemented by other possibilities. Houck threw more than twice as many four-seamers as sinkers in his debut against the Marlins, then went chiefly to his two-seamer against the Yankees when he saw that his velocity was down but his movement was up.
He’s had the tools and poise to adapt. But the hard part is ahead.
While Houck’s first two outings — 11 innings, no earned runs, three hits allowed, 11 strikeouts — have offered a solid foundation, there’s a long line of pitchers who dazzled through two starts then disappeared thereafter.
Perhaps his future ends up in the bullpen, as it did for other pitchers who briefly showed rotation promise (Brandon Workman in 2013, Jonathan Papelbon in 2005). Perhaps, like fellow sinker/slider slinger Justin Masterson, he sticks in the rotation.
Houck has always insisted that his goal is to remain a starter. For him to achieve it, he’ll have to continue to adapt.
“It’s still a semi-beta form of the finished product,” said Pawtucket pitching coach Paul Abbott.
Yet the fact that Houck welcomes that status — that he recognizes the likelihood that there are more changes in front of him, some of which will come with failure, others that come with struggle on the way to success — suggests that the 24-year-old can offer a commodity that has been in short supply for the Red Sox pitching staff this year: Hope.
“This guy has a chance to be pretty good if he puts it all together,” said Gold. “He’s starting to.”