The Boston Red Sox want to maximize Tanner Houck as much as they can, regardless of his role this season. The right-hander enters camp as one of seven pitchers competing for five spots in the starting rotation.
Health will be a factor in determining the outcome of this competition with several Red Sox pitchers entering camp with injury red flags. That includes Houck, who was shut down in early August last season with a back injury that required surgery. Houck has recovered from the procedure and is expected to be a full-go in spring training, which could give him a leg up on some of the competitors who carry lingering questions about their health.
Even if Houck opens the season in the bullpen, manager Alex Cora plans to use him in a multi-inning role, according to MassLive's Christopher Smith. This would not only allow the Red Sox to squeeze more innings out of Houck as a reliever, it would also keep him stretched out enough in case they need to transition him into the rotation later in the season.
Tanner Houck wants to be in the Red Sox rotation
Houck is eager to contribute any way he can but if the decision were up to him, he'd clearly prefer to be a starter and he's intent on earning his spot.
"I come into every camp trying to earn a role, whatever that is,” said Houck. “I have a chip on my shoulder. I believe I know I can do it. And I know I can do it well. So go out there, put my best forward every day. And let them kind of make the decision from there."- Tanner Houck
Houck has flashed his potential as both a starter and a reliever during his young career. He owns a 3.22 ERA, 1.116 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 in 20 career starts compared to a 2.68 ERA, 1.137 WHIP and 9.6 K/9 in 33 appearances.
While he has shown the ability to thrive in either role, there are some concerns that could leave the Red Sox hesitant to hand him a starting spot to open the season.
Houck made four starts last season, falling short of six innings in each and pitching into the fifth only twice. His vaccination status, which forced him to miss an early-season trip to Toronto, played a hand in Houck losing his grip on his rotation spot but concerns about his ability to pitch deep into games factored into why he didn't get more opportunities.
His career splits (per Baseball Reference) show that opposing hitters dramatically improve against Houck when seeing him multiple times in the same game. Houck limits hitters to a .186 batting average and .504 OPS the first time through the order. That increases to a .240 AVG and .675 OPS the second time and leaps to a staggering .296 AVG and 1.017 OPS when hitters see Houck for a third time in the game.
While the opposing lineup appears to morph into an All-Star squad for the third trip through the order against Houck, it's certainly possible that these results can be chalked up to small sample-sized noise. Houck only has 30 career plate appearances against hitters in their third trip through he order and he faced only three plate appearances in that scenario last season. These results could be the topic of a great philosophical debate - is Houck less effective when hitters see him multiple times or have the Red Sox given him insufficient opportunities to prove himself in those situations?
Another concern with utilizing Houck as a starter is that he's struggled more against left-handed hitters. Houck held right-handed hitters to a .205/.269/.227 slash line last season but lefties batted .259/.376/.400 against him. By deploying him out of the bullpen, the Red Sox could strategically use him in ways that limit his exposure against lefties. There's no hiding him as a starter, especially against teams that can stack their lineup with left-handed bats.
His split-finger fastball is an emerging weapon that will help him battle against lefties. Houck is gaining confidence in his splitter and acknowledged that he will need to rely on it if he's going to be a starter.
"The splitter has definitely made a lot of leaps and bounds this year,” said Houck. “I feel a lot more comfortable with it. Throwing it in all counts now. I felt that a little bit last year being in a bullpen role I didn’t need it as often. But in a starting role, I know I’m gonna have to add that in."- Tanner Houck
Developing his splitter will be the key to Houck's improvement as a starter. Houck utilized his splitter only six percent of the time and almost exclusively against lefties, per Baseball Savant. 51 of the 55 splitters he threw last season were to a left-handed hitter and he held opposing hitters to a .250 AVG and .221 WOBA with that pitch. His 36.4 Whiff% with the splitter was right up there with his slider (37.3%) as his best pitches for missing bats.
Houck has the tools to succeed as a major league starter but he still needs to prove he can hold up in the role for a full season. His 13 starts and 69.0 innings in 2021 were career-highs. He could easily double those figures if he hangs on to a rotation spot and Houck could potentially set a new career-high for innings in a relief role based on how Cora intends to use him if he lands in the bullpen.
The Red Sox made several upgrades to fortify the bullpen this winter but the rotation is a giant question mark looming over this team in training camp. Boston's rotation has the potential to be great if Chris Sale and James Paxton remain healthy enough to return to anything resembling their previous form, if Brayan Bello lives up to his potential in his first full season and if Garrett Whitlock successfully converts into a full-time starter.
That's a lot of "ifs" to be counting on. About the only thing the Red Sox can feel confident about is the reliable mediocrity of Nick Pivetta eating innings near the back of the rotation.
A breakout campaign from Houck that cements his role as a starting pitcher would go a long way toward easing the concerns about this staff and the maintenance of a rotation that can perform well enough to keep the Red Sox in the postseason picture.