Tanner Houck recorded the first save of his career on July 16, 2021. He reached this milestone by pitching three innings of baseball shutout to secure a 4-0 win over the New York Yankees. He wouldn’t secure another save for nearly 11 months.
Maybe he should have. The reason Houck didn’t save any games between last July and the last few weeks has nothing to do with his effectiveness, as he’s been a good pitcher for the most part in his now three seasons (including a 2020 cup of coffee), posting a 3.11 career ERA, 147 ERA + and 2.83 FIP across 130 1/3 innings. The problem has been that the Red Sox have struggled to decide how they want to use him.
Drafted in the first round of the 2017 MLB Draft, Houck rose the ranks in the minors primarily as a starting pitcher, and when he made his MLB debut in 2020, it was as a starter. He impressed in that initial opportunity, tossing five scoreless innings while striking out seven in a 2-0 win over the Miami Marlins. He followed that up with a pair of brilliant outings against the Yankees and Atlanta, finishing the season with a 0.53 ERA across 17 innings.
In 2021, though, he spent much of the year going back and forth between the minors and the big leagues, making spot starts and relief appearances all along the way. Regardless of the role he was asked to play, he usually delivered, such as when he struck out eight across five no-hit innings in a start on Oct. 2 against the Washington Nationals. He then pitched 10 1/3 innings as a reliever in the postseason, although his results there were less than ideal (5.23 ERA).
It looked like the Red Sox might have finally decided what to do with Houck when this season started, as he made three straight starts at the MLB level to begin the campaign. But that didn’t stick, and soon he was being used in long relief before he began pitching in the late innings and, eventually, closing games. Which leads us to now: In his last five appearances, Houck has only pitched in the ninth inning during save situations, and he’s converted all five of them.
Over that period, Houck has a 2.45 ERA and 0.67 FIP with a 35.3 percent strikeout rate and not a walk allowed. What this little run is teaching us is that as much as his potential as a starter is still enticing, Houck is currently a perfect fit for the closer role, or if you’re into more of a position-less bullpen situation (which you should be anyway), a high leverage late inning reliever. (I know that’s not what the headline says, but closer was easier to fit).
Houck’s success in his new role (albeit it in a limited sample) makes all the sense in the world, as it addresses his two largest shortcomings as a starter: his struggles the third time through the order and his lack of an effective pitch beyond his slider and heaters.
For starters (ha!), Using Houck in such late inning relief roles eliminates his issue with stamina as a starter. Pitching deep into games may not be in vogue anymore, but when Houck has pitched as a starter, he has never pitched more than six innings and he’s had well-documented struggles pitching the third time through the order. In a closer-like role, Houck doesn’t have to worry about that, as it allows him to go full speed all the time. That’s great news for someone who can throw pretty hard, ranking in the 70’sth percentile in fastball velocity this season, and that’s including his time starting when he might have been holding back to save gas for later innings.
Aside from giving him permission to unleash as much fire as possible on every pitch, as a closer, Houck can rely on his best pitches without worrying as much about developing a more expansive repertoire. He technically throws four pitches already, with his sublime slider his knockout offering and his four-seam fastball and sinker working as his hard stuff. However, while his sinker does have different movement than his four-seamer, there still hasn’t been as much differentiation in his overall arsenal as one might need from a starter to this point.
After those three pitches, Houck throws a splitter, but he has failed to develop it into anything more than a once-in-a-blue-moon offering, and not a particularly effective one at that. Such a what we’re generously calling a four-pitch range can still work for a starter, but the shine on those pitches will always wear off on the second and third time through the order. However, when batters only see a pitcher once, they are much more susceptible to succumbing to the powers of their best offerings, and Houck has a couple really good ones, especially his slider.
Working as a late inning reliever is also helping Houck get back to being himself. In his first two seasons in Boston, he posted strikeout rates of 33.3 percent and 30.5 percent, respectively. Those aren’t really sustainable rates for a starter and that has this year, as his strikeout rate has dropped to 24.2 percent. In fairness, that’s more in line with his numbers in the minors, but as noted earlier, Houck has a 35.3 percent strikeout rate in his last five outings (all save opportunities) and a 27.4 percent strikeout rate as a reliever overall. Speaking of his work as a reliever, he has a 2.93 ERA in the role this season compared to a 4.32 ERA as a starter and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is at 3.44 in relief appearances compared to 1.86 as a starter.
All in all, I’d say the move to late inning relief is working for Houck. Maybe he’ll circle back to the rotation eventually, but for now, it’s the perfect role for him.