FORT MYERS, Fla. — How best to use Tanner Houck is an excellent baseball debate.
If you’re of the belief that he should be used as a starting pitcher, you’re right. Houck has a 3.22 earned run average in 20 career starts and throws four good pitches. He has the ability to develop into a No. 2-type starter.
You’re also correct if you think the 26-year-old righthander should stay in the bullpen and overwhelm hitters with his fastball and slider in the late innings. Using Houck for 3-6 outs to set up closer Kenley Jansen has undeniable appeal.
The Red Sox haven’t come right out and said it, but every indication is they prefer to use Garrett Whitlock as a starter and Houck in relief. But Houck will work as a starter in spring training in case that changes.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora gave a diplomatic answer when he was asked how best to use Houck.
“As many innings as possible and we have to find that out,” he said. “If he is in the bullpen, he’ll go multiple innings. We’ll see what we want, but we have to maximize him.”
To watch Houck pitch Tuesday was to imagine the possibilities.
He took the mound in JetBlue Park with a crowd of teammates and coaches watching. Houck pitched an inning against Kiké Hernández, Masataka Yoshida, and Adam Duvall, He featured primarily his four-seam fastball and split finger, the ball thudding into the mitt of catcher Reese McGuire and echoing around the empty ballpark.
Hernández took a splitter that dove across the plate for a called strike and looked back at Houck with a smile.
“That felt good,” Houck said after he was done.
Houck would prefer to start but is more focused on his improved health. With the Sox in last place, Houck was shut down last season and had surgery Sept. 6 at Massachusetts General Hospital to correct a disk injury in his back. He stayed in Boston until mid-November rehabilitating.
“I had a great offseason thanks to the doctors last season,” Houck said. “Right time and right place to get it done.”
The extra month gave Houck enough time to get ready for spring training without limitations. It shows in how well he has pitched so far.
“I feel really good,” he said. “A lot of the [medical] stuff that I had last year is cleared up now. I cleaned up a lot of my delivery as well. Something with the back had always been bugging me over the years.”
The surgery also left Houck with a flexible attitude when it comes to his role. His preference is to start. But after pitching in pain last season, that’s secondary.
“It’s not my decision. I’d love to start; that’s what I’ve done my whole career,” he said. “But I’ve got to help the team win in whatever way possible.”
Houck has a 3.02 ERA and 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings over 53 appearances, thanks largely to his sinker and slider. The splitter is something he plans to use more often this season.
“It’s made a lot of leaps and bounds this year,” Houck said. “I feel a lot more comfortable with it. Throwing it in all counts now. I felt that way a little bit last year. But being in a bullpen role didn’t need it as often. But in a starting role I know I’m going to have to add it in.”
Put me down as being in favor of using Houck in the bullpen.
In an era of data-driven decisions, there is something to be said for Houck having the ability to quickly shake off mistakes and challenge the next hitter.
The best relievers have a level of confidence that allows them to get through jams. Houck has the right combination of talent and nerve to hold a one-run lead in the eighth inning and get the ball to Jansen.
“[Houck’s] stuff was really good [Tuesday]. He’s in a great place,” Cora said.
That place is in the bullpen.
Or maybe not.