Red Sox transitioning Tanner Houck into high-leverage relief role

BOSTON, MA - MAY 19: Tanner Houck #89 of the Boston Red Sox delivers during the fifth inning of a game against the Seattle Mariners on May 19, 2022 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - MAY 19: Tanner Houck #89 of the Boston Red Sox delivers during the fifth inning of a game against the Seattle Mariners on May 19, 2022 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

Tanner Houck has a new role in the Boston Red Sox bullpen

The Boston Red Sox have been searching for a solution to fill the void at the back of the bullpen that was created when Garrett Whitlock moved into the starting rotation. They may have found their answer with Tanner Houck.

During NESN’s postgame coverage following Tuesday’s win over the Los Angeles Angels, manager Alex Cora revealed his plan for utilizing Houck.

"“We’re going to use (Tanner Houck) in high-leverage situations,” Cora said. “We’re trying to avoid four-inning, three-inning stints, maximum he’ll do two. Kind of like the way we used Garrett last year.”"

The Red Sox have toyed with the roles of both pitchers this season. When Whitlock has been tasked with a new opportunity, it’s typically been Houck picking up the slack he leaves behind.

When the season started, the plan was to use Whitlock in a multi-inning role piggybacking off starters when they didn’t last deep into games. He would also be occasionally used in high-leverage spots between those outings, such as when he recorded a one-inning save against the Blue Jays in his fourth appearance this season.

That plan went out the window at the end of April when the unvaccinated Houck was ineligible to travel to Toronto. Whitlock took Houck’s rotation spot and hasn’t handed it back since.

Houck became the long reliever called upon to fill at least part of the role Whitlock had been handling. Several of his relief appearances when he was initially moved to the bullpen followed the veteran Rich Hill, who doesn’t often last longer than five innings at this stage of his career. Some of Houck’s more recent outings were in mop-up duty, with three consecutive appearances in games the Red Sox won by 6+ runs.

While some of those innings that he tossed in blowouts were simply to get the right-hander some work, that role is a waste of Houck’s talents. If the Red Sox are going to leave Houck in the bullpen, they need to be able to rely on him when it matters most.

It appears we’re finally seeing Houck earn his way into those high-leverage spots. Cora stopped short of naming Houck the closer but it’s clear that he’s on the short list to handle save situations. The first hint was on Friday when Houck was warming up in the bullpen with the Red Sox clinging to a two-run lead entering the ninth. Boston’s bats piled up three more runs in the top of the inning, taking away the save opportunity. Rather than waste Houck, Cora let Ryan Brasier finish off the Oakland A’s with a five-run lead.

Last night against the Angels, Houck tossed scoreless eighth and ninth innings, allowing one hit and one walk while striking out three. The game went into extra-innings with Matt Strahm notching the save in the 10th, but it’s noteworthy that Houck remained in the game for the ninth. Teams typically let their closers handle the ninth in a tie game to avoid a scenario where they don’t make it to extra-innings while their best reliever sits idle in the bullpen. Despite not getting credited with the save, Houck was treated like a closer in this game.

Ideally, it would be Whitlock in this late-inning role with Houck back in the rotation. Starting pitchers are typically more valuable than a reliever but this team has a greater need right now in the bullpen. Whitlock was nearly untouchable in the bullpen, posting a 0.93 ERA in 9 2/3 innings this season and dominating in the role last year. He’s been a solid middle of the rotation arm since he became a starter, going 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA in nine starts, but he’s lasted more than five innings only twice.

Whitlock is more valuable to this team as a lights out reliever than he is as a mediocre starting pitcher. While Houck could certainly thrive in his new bullpen role, he hasn’t been as dominant as Whitlock as a reliever and he has more experience as a starter.

The problem with swapping their roles again is tied to Houck’s vaccination status. Boston travels to Toronto again later this month for a series that Whitlock is currently lined up to start in. If Houck was put back in the rotation, the Red Sox would need to switch them back for that series with the Blue Jays, or find another spot starter to fill in for Houck.

The headaches of reconfiguring the rotation might not be worthwhile in the short term. This plan is subject to change though. The Red Sox only make one more trip to Toronto in the second half, which begins at the end of September when expanded rosters will give them more flexibility.

Cora can always pivot later in the season if his two young pitchers aren’t performing well in their roles. Until further notice, Houck is in the bullpen and it’s clear that Cora is ready to trust him with more important innings. Cora won’t necessarily name an official closer but Houck has the talent and the temperament to handle the job if he’s called upon late in a tight game.

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