Tanner Houck will start 3rd game of the Red Sox season

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox / Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/GettyImages

Since making his major league debut in 2020, Tanner Houck has been a pitching Swiss Army Knife for the Boston Red Sox. Over parts of three seasons, Houck has spent time as a starter, long reliever, and closer, before missing the final 7-weeks of the 2022 season due to back surgery. He entered spring training in 2023 with aspirations of making the Red Sox starting rotation.

Houck told Ian Browne of MLB.com:

"I would love to start. That's what I've done my whole career. But at the end of the day, I’ve got to help the team win whatever way possible."

After injuries have slowed Garrett Whitlock (return from hip surgery), James Paxton (hamstring), and Brayan Bello (forearm tightness), Houck had his opening to crack the Red Sox starting rotation. While his production this spring has not earned him that spot, it appears he will be following Corey Kluber and Chris Sale in the starting rotation to begin the season.

Houck opened his spring training against the Philadelphia Phillies. In his first start since returning from back surgery last season, he seemed rusty walking four batters and striking out two in 1-2/3 scoreless innings. Houck told Ian Browne of MLB.com that there may have been some mechanical issues as he was "leaving the arm hanging behind".

In his second start of the spring, Houck pitched two innings against the Atlanta Braves allowing two runs on two walks and three hits. Though this boxscore does not seem impressive, he did strike out four batters and threw first-pitch strikes to 11 of the 13 batters he faced. More importantly, Houck incorporated a splitter. To be an effective starting pitcher, Houck will need a third pitch to add to his formidable fastball and slider. As such, it was promising to see him using a splitter.

Alex Cora told Dawn Klemish of MLB.com:

"As far as stuff, I saw a lot of swings and misses, and he used a split-change a few times today and kept them off-balance, so that was a good one"

Houck has also been working on a cutter.

Since that start, he has made several more up-and-down starts before being pummeled Wednesday night by the Minnesota Twins. Houck allowed eight runs on ten hits in 4.2 innings against the Twins and summed up his performance by saying, "I sucked" to Ian Browne of MLB.com. Houck again complained that his mechanics were off while trying to develop a third pitch. Houck's overall spring numbers including an ERA of 8.31 leave a lot to be desired and have not helped his argument to begin the season as a starter.

After Houck's worst start of the spring, it was surprising to read Ian Browne's tweet that Houck was tabbed as the starting pitcher for the third game of the season after Corey Kluber and Chris Sale pitch the first two games of the series against the Orioles. Though the timing of the announcement seems peculiar given Houck's performance against the Twins, Alex Cora has likely had this planned for some time as he tries to navigate the early season turns through the rotation before Paxton, Bello, and Whitlock return.

After his performance this spring, Houck might better serve the Red Sox in a multi-inning relief role. This would allow him to work on his control and a third pitch. Alex Cora could also deploy him strategically in matchups that play to his strengths to rebuild his confidence after his lackadaisical spring. Given that four pitchers on the starting staff are returning from injury (Sale, Paxton, Whitlock, Bello), Houck would be a valuable asset to piggyback on their starts to provide multi-inning insurance if they falter.

Given the injuries to several starting pitchers, Alex Cora may not have had an alternative to putting Houck in the starting rotation to start the season. Though Houck should be proud that he has achieved the goal he set for himself before spring training, he probably wishes he could have earned it with his play on the field. Red Sox Nation will hope he makes the most of this opportunity and that this spring training was an aberration as he came back from injury. It will quickly become apparent if Houck has corrected the mechanical issues that seem to have bothered him this spring. Another early determinant of success will be how he incorporates the third pitch he has been working on. Houck's performance as a starting pitcher will be one of the key early storylines of the 2023 Red Sox season.