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The Boston Red Sox don’t have many top prospects, but they do have a few promising players. As far as their pitching prospects go, 2017 first-round pick Tanner Houck is among the top in the organization. The 22-year old finished his first full season with the High-A Salem Red Sox and is expected to join the AA Portland Sea Dogs for the start of the 2019 minor league season. Can Houck continue his quick progression through the minors, and what must he improve to become major league ready.
Red Sox Prospects: Tanner Houck
All in all, 2018 was a successful season for Houck. Spending his first full season in professional baseball, Houck recorded a 4.24 ERA and a 4.31 FIP in 119 innings of baseball. While these numbers don’t suggest Houck is a future Cy Young winner, they were certainly encouraging for a 21-year old facing High-A competition.
What’s most encouraging is that Houck improved as the season went on. After struggling through the first two months of his season, Houck recorded a 2.86 ERA and a 2.98 FIP in his final 12 starts of the year. Basically, Houck needed time to adjust to the increased level of competition but then began living up to his potential.
The secret to Houck’s success is his two-seam fastball. Entering the 2018 season, the Red Sox tried to lean Houck off of the two-seam fastball in favor of a four-seam fastball. While he did gain a bit more velocity from this change, his four-seam simply didn’t have the movement to fool batters. During the second half of the season, Houck went back to primarily using his two-seam fastball, which led to his dramatic improvement. The fastball currently sits in the mid-to-low 90’s but has the potential to reach up to 97.
Houck complements his fastball with a curveball and a changeup. At this point, the curveball is a significantly better offering. His breaking ball possesses great movement and Houck has shown a willingness to use it against both left-and-right-handed hitters. The changeup, meanwhile, is a work in progress. The changeup doesn’t do much of anything at this point and is erratic and easily hittable. While his other pitches have the potential to be major-league caliber, his changeup is still a ways away.
What To Work On
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but a talented Red Sox arm needs to work on their control. In what is an astonishingly common trait amongst the Red Sox top pitching prospects, Houck struggles to consistently find the strike zone. Houck finished the 2018 season with a less-than-impressive 4.54 BB/9 rate in his 119 innings pitched.
However, there is hope for Houck. As previously mentioned, Houck was significantly better in the second half of 2018 when he started featuring his two-seam fastball. During his final 12 starts of the season, Houck decreased his BB/9 down to 2.99. While this still isn’t a great number, it’s a clear improvement from where he was early in the season. At age 22, he still has plenty of time to find more control in AA Portland.
Houck will enter 2018 as a starting pitcher and will have every chance to show the organization why he should stay in that role. His two-seam fastball and curveball are both promising offering, and the four-seam fastball is a nice change-of-pace pitch to keep hitters guessing.
However, Houck’s most likely path to the majors is as a bullpen arm. Even with his improved second-half command, Houck is still too erratic to be a mainstay in a major league rotation, at least at this point. Additionally, if he’s to remain a starter, he’ll need to add another pitch. Two-pitch starters typically don’t work out in the majors, and a bullpen role would probably increase his fastball velocity. His fastball currently peaks at 97 miles per hour and normally rests at 92-94. If he were in the bullpen, his fastball would probably stay closer to the 97 miles per hour.
Wherever his career ends up taking him, Houck should find his way to the major leagues. It would take a lot for him to make it there in 2019, especially if the Red Sox want to see if he can make it as a starting pitcher. Look for Houck to make the majors sometime midway through 2020, probably as a reliever.