Red Sox: Tanner Houck credits splitter development for his recent success

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 24: Tanner Houck #89 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the first inning of a game against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park on August 24, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 24: Tanner Houck #89 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the first inning of a game against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park on August 24, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

Tanner Houck’s splitter is a difference-maker for the Red Sox rookie

If you’re one of those people that just look at wins and losses in regards to a pitcher then you’d probably think that Red Sox rookie Tanner Houck is having a pretty bad year. But much like an onion, baseball starts have many layers and go far deeper than just records. Yeah, he may not be on the winning end of plenty of games, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been getting it done for Boston in 2021.

After his September callup last season, it was believed that the righty would make the starting rotation out of spring training, but that wasn’t the case. While he dominated in his short time with the Red Sox in 2020 the organization felt like he needed some more polishing before totally being MLB ready.

Even though he’s been shipped back and forth between Boston and Worcester more times than any of us can count, he’s spent a majority of his time with the actual big club. He’s put in plenty of time in Triple-A but getting to be around guys like Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Sale, and Eduardo Rodriguez every day has to be a massive boost to his development.

The issue that Red Sox skipper Alex Cora had harped on coming out of spring training was Houck’s need to develop a third pitch. He relies heavily on his fastball and slider, which are very effective, but that makes it easy for the opposition to guess what’s coming. Tanner is often referred to as a right-handed Chris Sale, not just due to the similarities in their motions but also the effectiveness of their best pitch, the slider.

However, the difference between the two is that Sale has an absolutely nasty changeup that allows him to weaponize his fastball and slider even more. Well, Houck heard the feedback and has been working on a splitter all season long. It hasn’t always been where he wants it to be but he credits the pitch’s effectiveness as of late to the success he’s been seeing on the mound.

"“I think a lot of pieces came together today. Slider was pretty good, especially whenever I needed it,” Houck said. “The splitter was definitely the go-to offspeed pitch today. I’m incredibly excited to have that pitch as effective as it is now. It’s been a long year of learning and developing that pitch and pushing myself to make that as big a weapon as it is now."

Tanner said it perfectly, having that splitter be a true weapon will only make him more dangerous on the mound. It was one of his better pitches in his most recent start on Saturday and really highlighted his heater and the slider. While he dazzled for five innings of three-hit ball against the Indians, he was quick to get pulled once his task was completed. Though he did strike out seven in that outing, two by way of the splitter.

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Many in Red Sox Nation, me included, feel he needs to be allowed to go deeper into games to see if he can get over the hurdle of seeing the lineup a third time. Former Sox infielder and current WEEI radio host Lou Merloni made a great point though, that’s something that can be done at the beginning of the season, not during a playoff push in September. As much as I want to see him figure it out, I’m more than happy with five dominant innings and handing the ball over to the bullpen.

I understand why Cora pulled him when he did, considering the last time he let Houck go late into a game it was against these very Indians and the wheels fell off quickly. Lou is also spot-on, in April or May this wouldn’t be a question, go late and figure it out, but not in the final month of the season. I have more than enough faith in AC and Dave Bush, as well as Chaim Bloom, in regards to their plans for the young righty and what the future has in store for him.

We talked about metrics beyond the win-loss earlier here so I think it’s time we look a bit deeper into what Tanner has done in 2021. He owns a 3.26 ERA, 2.48 FIP, and a 1.148 WHIP through 49.2 innings of work. More impressively, he carries an 11.2 K/9 compared to just a 2.2 BB/9, breaking down to a 61:12 split. As I said, he’s more than getting the job done, it’s been a matter of bad luck and getting pulled before the win can be secured.

"“It’s definitely going to be the biggest part. Having that third pitch to keep hitters off-balance,” he said. “Working the four and two-seam (fastballs) and not getting to 3-2 counts with every hitter or behind the hitters. We talked, me and (pitching coach Dave Bush), about going on the attack. When a batter goes to 0-1, their batting average significantly drops. When you go to 0-2 it drops even more. It puts you in such an advantage count that you don’t have to play a fastball cookie in there. It opens the window for all your best pitches and all your nasty stuff to come out.”"

Adding in the splitter to be his third pitch and making it as much of a weapon as possible will only enhance what he can do for the Red Sox. We all know that his slider is pure filth and he can ramp up the gas on his fastball whenever he needs to but having that true offspeed pitch in the arsenal will be a game-changer for the young righty.

As for his future, I believe he’ll be in the bullpen for the postseason and then find himself in the rotation full-time in 2022. If he continues to progress and improve the way he has then I think Boston has a serious threat on their hands. It’s been a long time since this organization has had a homegrown pitching talent pan out and see some real success, it sure feels like Tanner Houck may be that next guy in line.

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