Red Sox plan to develop Tanner Houck as a starting pitcher

Sep 15, 2020; Miami, Florida, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Tanner Houck (89) delivers a pitch in the 1st inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 15, 2020; Miami, Florida, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Tanner Houck (89) delivers a pitch in the 1st inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

The Red Sox have no plans to move Tanner Houck to the bullpen

Tanner Houck has been a starting pitcher for most of his professional career and the Boston Red Sox intend to keep it that way.

Houck was utilized exclusively as a starter from his debut in low-A ball in 2017 through his stint with Double-A Portland in 2019. The Red Sox converted him into a reliever when they bumped him up to Triple-A midway through the 2019 season, seemingly preparing him for the opportunity to help the big league team out of the bullpen down the stretch.

That promotion never came that year so Houck had to wait until the end of last year’s shortened season to make his major league debut. He impressed in a brief audition last September, going 3-0 with a 0.53 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and 11.1 K/9 in three starts.

Alex Cora was asked about Houck’s role when he addressed the media on Wednesday and the manager was clear that he views the right-hander as a starter.

"“I think we’ve been through that road as an organization for the last 15 years,” said Cora. “We’re considering him a starter.”"

It’s fair to wonder if the bullpen was an option for Houck to begin the season. The Red Sox have Eduardo Rodriguez, Garrett Richards, Nathan Eovaldi and Martin Perez locked into rotation spots. That leaves Houck battling Nick Pivetta for the fifth spot with Rule 5 draft pick Garrett Whitlock potentially factoring into the mix. There isn’t room for all of them in the rotation and someone will eventually lose their spot to Chris Sale when he returns later this summer.

The odd men out could conceivably be used to bolster a bullpen that isn’t exactly overflowing with reliable arms. It’s not uncommon for teams to send their surplus starting pitchers to the bullpen where they could handle a long relief role and be available for the occasional spot start.

A case can be made that Houck is more suited for a bullpen role than his competition would be. Houck has historically struggled against left-handed hitters. His splits were relatively neutral in the small sample of his dominant three starts last season but in 2019, he held right-handed bats to a .227 average and .686 OPS compared to a .283 average and .756 OPS against lefties.

Houck relies primarily on a low-90s four-seam fastball, a sinking fastball that shaves a couple of mph off that velocity, plus a nasty slider. He also has a split finger fastball that he brought out on rare occasion against lefties, according to Baseball Savant.

A starting pitcher can get by with only three reliable options in their arsenal as long as at least a couple of them are plus-pitches but they’ll struggle to turn a lineup over multiple times if they can’t get a feel for all of them. Houck isn’t overpowering and the slider is his only breaking ball to keep hitters off balance with. That will make it difficult to fool hitters who have already seen him two or three times, limiting how deep he might last against major league lineups.

These factors would leave some pitchers destined for the bullpen but that’s not the path that Cora envisions for Houck. As the manager alluded to, we’ve see the Red Sox bounce pitchers back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen in recent years. The flexibility in how they can use these pitchers might be a short-term benefit to the team but it often comes at the detriment of the pitcher’s long-term development.

Brian Johnson comes to mind as a pitcher who crumbled under these circumstances. The lefty was once a decent prospect who flashed potential in a few starts early in his career but never managed to cement himself into a spot in Boston’s deep rotation. He would get the occasional spot start before bouncing back to the bullpen. Sometimes he would be used in a multi-inning role and others he would stay in for less than a full inning. There was no stability in his role and he was constantly adjusting based on what was being asked of him. Johnson had a rough 2019 season, posting a 6.02 ERA in 21 appearances that included seven starts. He’s now out of the league.

Cora wants to avoid a similar fate for Houck. The Red Sox see upside in Houck’s future and don’t want to risk stunting his growth by setting him off course in a different role.

Houck will have an opportunity to earn the No. 5 spot in the Red Sox rotation to open the season. If he falls short, we should expect him to begin the season in Triple-A Worcester as a starter and remain there until there’s an opening in Boston’s rotation.

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The Red Sox aren’t taking any short cuts with his development by using him as a reliever for the sake of keeping him in the big leagues. Houck is more valuable as a starter and there’s no reason to cap his upside in a reduced role or let him rack up service time that escalates his timeline toward arbitration and free agency until he’s ready to be among Boston’s five best available rotation options.