RED SOX INSIDER

Tomase: Houck's encouraging debut comes with a few caveats

RED SOX INSIDER

The Red Sox made us sit through entirely too much Kyle Hart, Matt Hall, and Zack Godley before finally giving us Tanner Houck.

The 24-year-old right-hander, the team's first-round pick in 2017, made his big league debut Tuesday with an impressive performance, shutting out the Marlins for five innings while striking out seven.

His fastball touched 95 mph, his sweeping slider showed considerable movement, and for the first time all season, the Red Sox summoned a pitcher who didn't make us want to flip over to House Hunters.

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Before we get too excited, however, it's worth noting that as recently as last fall, the Red Sox were attempting to convert Houck into a reliever.

After pitching solely out of the rotation over his first two-plus seasons in the minors, he made a pair of relief outings at Double-A Portland before pitching almost exclusively out of relief over the final two months at Triple-A Pawtucket.

The move was necessitated in part over concerns that Houck lacked a pitch to retire left-handed hitters, who posted a .383 on base percentage against him in 2019.

The development of a split-fingered fastball had supposedly saved him in this regard, though if he threw any on Tuesday, they didn't register at Baseball Savant, which had him throwing six changeups instead over 86 pitches that were mostly sinkers and sliders.

It helped that the Marlins lineup featured only three left-handed hitters, including one, Jazz Chisholm, batting a buck-fifty. But considering the historically awful nature of their rotation, the Red Sox will take it.

 

"Big game, big impression," said manager Ron Roenicke. "It was something we needed. We needed to see a starter go like that and throw up all those zeros. Pretty cool."

The bigger question is what Houck might be able to provide down the line.

The Red Sox have notoriously failed to draft and develop an impact starter since the days of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Their last wave of prospects represented all hype and no production, with mediocre left-hander Henry Owens embodying their struggles to develop an arm with upside.

Presented as the Next Big Thing, Owens actually possessed nothing even remotely resembling an out pitch. He posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 21-to-20 in 2016 and was never heard from again.

The team's one success story is left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, acquired in 2014 from the Orioles for reliever Andrew Miller. It took a while thanks to injuries and inconsistency, but E-Rod won 19 games last year and figures to open next season as the ace, provided he recovers from COVID-related heart issues.

Houck generally fits a pattern of Red Sox pitching prospects lacking elite velocity and stuff, with the exception of hard-throwing right-hander Bryan Mata.

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The hope is that former first-round pick Jay Groome gets there the further removed he finds himself from Tommy John surgery, but from Houck to right-hander Thad Ward to the recently acquired Connor Seabold, Red Sox prospects seem more likely to win with precision than pure stuff.

Contrast that with the Marlins, who are making a surprising run at the postseason. Tuesday's starter, Sandy Alcantara, just turned 25 and was an All-Star last year. He threw 48 fastballs of at least 95 mph against the Red Sox, touching 98 mph.

Prospect Sixto Sanchez is just 21 and throws 100 mph sinkers. Twenty-four-year-old Pablo Lopez has hit 97 mph. Recently summoned left-hander Tyler Rogers, 22, can touch 97 mph, but with an elite spin rate.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox keep pumping out prospects like Houck -- tweeners who might find a home at the back of the rotation, but are more likely to land in the bullpen. Sometimes they end up excelling there -- think Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman -- but that does nothing to address holes in the starting staff.

And despite an encouraging debut, it's by no means assured that Houck will be any different.