Red Sox: How Tanner Houck can save the starting rotation

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 3: Tanner Houck #89 of the Boston Red Sox delivers during the first inning of a game against the Baltimore Orioles on April 3, 2021 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 3: Tanner Houck #89 of the Boston Red Sox delivers during the first inning of a game against the Baltimore Orioles on April 3, 2021 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

Tanner Houck could give the Boston Red Sox rotation a boost

The Boston Red Sox need reinforcements for their suddenly struggling starting rotation and they may find some internally with Tanner Houck nearing a potential return to the big leagues.

Houck tossed three scoreless innings without allowing a hit for Triple-A Worcester on Thursday, his first start since he landed on the injured list with a sore flexor muscle. He’ll need at least another tune-up or two so he can build to a starter’s pitch count but Houck could conceivably be ready before the end of the month.

The right-hander dazzled in his first taste of major league action last year, going 3-0 with a 0.53 ERA in three starts. He wasn’t quite as dominant with his opportunities this year but he has produced a decent 4.23 ERA in three appearance, including two starts. Houck struck out 12 while only walking one over 10 1/3 innings, a promising sign that he’s improved the one glaring weakness that emerged during his brief sample last season.

Houck’s imminent return comes at an opportune time. The Red Sox rotation has exceeded expectations this season but their starters appear to have hit a wall this month. Boston’s starting rotation has a 6.01 ERA in 16 games in June.

The recent struggles could be tied to fatigue. Their decline began around the same time that the Red Sox approached their 60th game, meaning their starters have essentially matched, if not exceeded, their innings totals from last year’s shortened season. Red Sox starters enter the day fourth in the American League and tied for eighth in the majors with 365 1/3 innings pitched. Boston was 29th in the majors with only 246 innings from their rotation last year.

These Red Sox starters need a break, or at least a way to lighten their workload. That’s where Houck can come in.

Manager Alex Cora hasn’t shown any inclination that he’s willing to move to a six-man rotation but it’s worth considering on a temporary basis in order to slow the accumulation of his starter’s rapidly rising innings totals.

The Red Sox have been cautious with Eduardo Rodriguez in his return from a lost season. Adding an extra starter to the rotation would help ease the workload on a pitcher who didn’t take the mound at all last year. Rodriguez has historically preformed better with an extra day off between starts, posting a 4.02 ERA with at least five days of rest compared to a 4.47 ERA with a normal four days or rest.

Nick Pivetta made only five starts for a total of 15 2/3 innings in time split between the Phillies and Red Sox last year. He’s logged the second-most innings on the team this year with 74 1/3, a significant jump that might explain why he’s surrendered six home runs over his last three starts after he had coughed up only four in his previous 11 starts.

If Cora isn’t interested in a six-man rotation, Houck’s arrival could give the team an excuse to sideline a struggling starter with a phantom injury to give them a break.

A frustrated Garrett Richards vented about MLB cracking down on pitchers using foreign substances following his last start when he lasted only four innings. He wasn’t able to get a feel for his breaking ball without the sticky stuff he’s used throughout his career and had to rely almost exclusively on fastballs. Maybe he needs a break to figure out how to throw his curve without the aid of any substance on his fingertips. Either that or he needs time to learn a  new pitch because he’s not going to be successful throwing only his heater.

Martin Perez was arguably the most consistent starter in the Red Sox rotation until getting shelled for a total of 11 runs over his last two starts while failing to last more than two innings in either outing. That’s one way to keep an innings total in check but it’s not the preferred method. Skipping him in the rotation for a turn or two might give Perez a chance to clear his head and get back on track.

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We have less than a month to go before the All-Star break, enough time for about four more trips through the rotation. Houck isn’t ready yet but he should be soon. If he can return in time to give the other starers an extra day of rest between their last few starts or allow one of them to take an extended break, it could go a long way toward lightening the burden on their arms. The additional rest should help the rotation recharge during the break to come out strong for the second half of the season.