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Tomase: Was Houck's debut a sign of things to come?

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* Throughout this month, we'll put a member of the 2020 Red Sox and one of their most notable statistics under the microscope while assessing their season and what lies ahead. Today's installment: Tanner Houck.

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The book on Tanner Houck from the moment he arrived as the 24th pick in the 2017 draft was that he needed to add a third pitch to his sinker/slider repertoire -- specifically, one that could attack left-handed hitters.

First it was a changeup, which he junked. Then it was a much-ballyhooed splitter, which he barely threw. Then he reached the big leagues, and it turned out that all his sinker and slider needed was a commitment to throwing his four-seam fastball up in the zone.

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The result was a .111 batting average against vs. lefties that represented a massive improvement over the .283 he had allowed in the minors in 2019.

What went right for Houck in 2020

Did we mention that sinker and slider? Throwing across his body from a low three-quarters arm slot like a right-handed Chris Sale, the next hit Houck surrenders on either pitch will be his first. That's right -- opposing hitters went a combined 0 for 25 against those two offerings, helping Houck open eyes as a legitimate candidate for the 2021 rotation.

In three starts, he went 3-0 with a 0.53 ERA, striking out 21 in 17 innings. With his slider breaking violently away from righties and his two-seamer diving at their ankles, he found ways to attack both sides of the plate before elevating his 92-mph fastball. It's a repertoire vaguely reminiscent of former Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, but with a much better slider.

 

What went wrong for Houck in 2020

About the only quibble anyone could have with his season is that he didn't arrive sooner, but that was the organization's decision, not his, besides which, the team believes he needed that extra seasoning at the alternate site in order to unlock the potential that made him so effective over the final couple of weeks of the season.

Early outlook for 2021

The league has yet to get a book on Houck, and there will inevitably be adjustments. But for now, he has the inside track at a spot in the rotation, where he will be given a full season to prove that 2020 wasn't a fluke.

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While questions may remain about his ability to live up in the zone without a traditional power arsenal, Houck has proven extremely coachable and the Red Sox have to feel good about his development over the last three years, which suggests room for continued growth.