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Champ or Chump: Tanner Houck

Did any team have a more puzzling trading deadline than the Boston Red Sox? Okay, the Seattle Mariners trading their All-Star closer to the team they're chasing for a package largely comprised of future value was a bit strange. Still, the Red Sox need a pitcher and an injured power hitter without a position is not a pitcher.

It's possible that Boston didn't make a move because they believe in Tanner Houck, a 25-year-old RHP drafted 24th overall in the 2017 Amateur Draft who came into the season as the sixth-ranked prospect in their system per MLB.com. Demoting him to Triple-A Worcester is a funny way of expressing faith, though he will be recalled for the club's doubleheader against the Blue Jays on August 7.

Houck has pitched well this season, posting a 2.48 ERA and 2.41 xFIP over 22 IP on the back of a 33.7 K%. That's exciting in fantasy. He was also excellent in 2020 after fantasy managers stopped paying attention to Boston pitching, posting a 0.53 ERA and 3.73 xFIP with a 33.3 K% in 21 IP. Houck's path to success is relatively narrow, but he could be a tremendous fantasy asset the rest of the way if he's even half the pitcher his small sample sizes suggest he is. Let's talk about it.

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Who the Heck is Houck?

Scouts like Houck for his plus fastball and slider combination, but his splitter is considered a work in progress and his command comes and goes. He stands 6'5'' and delivers the ball with a low-three-quarters, crossfire motion that deceives hitters and helps his stuff play up. Unfortunately, it's also a "complicated delivery" that can get him into trouble when he struggles to repeat it. Some scouts saw him as a reliever due to command concerns, but his advocates feel that he can stick in the rotation. Here are his MLB.com scouting grades:

The FanGraphs team agrees for the most part, though they're lower on his split (current 40 capping at 45) and feel that Houck will develop average command in time. Either way, the package is interesting in fantasy.



Interesting MiLB Statistics

Houck debuted in the High Minors in 2019 with Double-A Portland, pitching to a reasonable 4.25 ERA and 3.65 xFIP in 82 2/3 IP. His 22.1 K% didn't really stand out while his 8.8 BB% was elevated for an arm that's not striking out the world, and opposing batters enjoyed a .346 BABIP against him. The 5.1% HR/FB he posted was interesting, but the overall profile was very much a work in progress. That didn't stop the Sox from promoting him to Triple-A Pawtucket midseason.

Houck only logged 25 IP with the PawSox, producing a 3.24 ERA but a 5.71 xFIP. His K% increased slightly to 23.9%, but his BB% ballooned to 12.4. He was also fortunate to post a .250 BABIP, though his 11.1% HR/FB was very good considering how offense exploded at the Triple-A level that year. He reportedly spent the beginning of the 2020 campaign honing his splitter before earning a callup to the pitching-starved big-league club.

His debut season was a success considering he allowed only a single run across 17 innings, but there were some red flags under the hood. His .161 BABIP would probably be impossible to repeat over a full season, and his strong strikeout rate was offset by a 14.3 BB%. The Red Sox decided to start Houck at Triple-A Worcester this year, where he pitched to a 5.14 ERA but 3.36 xFIP over 21 IP with a 28.9 K% and 7.8 BB% before returning to the Show. Houck's MiLB resume is intriguing, but most of the samples are too small to draw definitive conclusions from.


What's Led to Success?

Houck is throwing more fastballs and sliders this season at the expense of his sinker, but that's an oversimplified way of looking at it. Oddly, both his fastball and slider have gone from 35.5% to 38.2% usage, making their usage perfectly equivalent in both of his MLB campaigns. His fastball has gained two ticks of velocity, going from 92.9 mph in 2020 to 94.9 this season. Its 58.9 Zone% is impressive, but its 7.1 SwStr% is middling. Houck's spin rate of 2,107 RPM doesn't immediately stand out, but only 59.1% of that spin actively contributes to pitch movement. The result is akin to pitchers like Kyle Hendricks.

Meanwhile, his slider is a wipeout pitch with a 19.1 SwStr%. Its 31.2% chase rate is on the low side, but Houck makes up for it by throwing it for a strike 45.4% of the time. More importantly, his sinker has gone from a bad fastball in 2020 to a chase pitch with a 15.3 SwStr% and 41.2% chase rate this year. This author has never seen a sinker that batters chase out of the zone before, but it appears to be working. Houck only throws his split 4.1% of the time and it has a SwStr% of zero, so he's really a three-pitch pitcher.

Baseball Savant's xStats say that Houck's .229 batting average allowed should only be .216, leaving room to hope that his .340 BABIP comes down. Slugging percentage does not tell quite the same story (.313 actual vs. .337 expected), but it's fair to say that Houck has largely deserved his results so far.



If the Red Sox want to hold off the Rays, Blue Jays, and Yankees, they're going to have to implement a meritocracy-based pitching staff. Many of their options are oft-injured (Nathan Eovaldi) or simply not very good (Eduardo Rodriguez), so this author is confident that Houck will stick in the rotation. Boston's offense should provide plenty of run support, but the team's defense leaves something to be desired.

With difficult mechanics and a relatively limited repertoire for a starter, Houck could be prone to the occasional blow-up game that may make him unappealing to managers protecting their ratios. That said, his strikeout potential alone means that he should be rostered in far more than the 26% of Yahoo! leagues he's currently taken in. That makes him a Champ!

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