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August 4, 2017 at 7:30 AM

Scouting Scratch: Tanner Houck

LOWELL, Mass. – In June, the Red Sox selected right-handed pitcher Tanner Houck out of the University of Missouri in the first round of the draft. Houck made his final collegiate start on May 23, but although he signed on June 21, his first professional start didn’t come until July 17 (a typical wait for a top pick, likely spent building strength on the organization’s shoulder program). Houck has now made four starts for the Short-Season A Lowell Spinners, going 7.1 innings and allowing three earned runs on four hits and three walks, striking out nine and posting a 3.68 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. 

I saw Houck’s first three starts—his fourth start, of course, which was on the road, happened to be his best start. In this start, he went 3 innings, struck out four and allowed just one baserunner, that on a dropped third strike. Although Houck hasn’t yet had to turn a lineup over or worked deep into a game, these initial looks have provided a solid basis of what to look for with Houck going forward.

Houck has a tall, athletic, pitcher’s frame, listed at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds. He has some projection left and should add strength as he matures. Houck has a unique delivery with a fair amount of effort, but it seems to work for him and his arm is very quick. He starts all the way to the first base side of the rubber and has a long arm action with an elbow climb in the back and a high leg kick. He comes across his body, releasing the ball from a low three-quarters arm slot and lands on the third base side of the mound before falling back towards the first base side. The delivery is extremely tough on right-handed hitters and is not something you often see from a starting pitcher.

Houck’s fastball velocity was much higher in his first outing as compared to his later starts, perhaps partially due to adrenaline in making his pro debut and overthrowing some, but also by conscious choice. In the first game, Houck sat 94-97 mph but struggled to control the fastball and the pitch lacked movement. In the next two games, Houck’s fastball sat 91-93 mph with heavy sink down in the zone. Houck told David Laurila at Fangraphs that he gets more movement on the fastball when it’s in the low-90s, while it flattens out in the upper-90s. This was noticeable in the latter two starts, as hitters really struggled to elevate the ball and square it up. Houck hasn’t had to work deep into games yet, so it is to be seen if he can hold velocity deep into games, but it is encouraging that he is thinking about his craft and aware of what works best for him rather than just focusing on the radar gun. 

To compliment his fastball, Houck utilizes a slider and changeup. His 82-86 mph slider was his primary secondary pitch in the outings scouted, flashing above-average potential. The pitch showed long, sweepy, 10-to-4 break and flashed some depth and bite. Other times it was loopy and more vertical. He showed confidence in the pitch, using it against both right- and left-handed hitters in any count. Given his arm slot, the pitch is going to be extremely difficult on right-handed hitters, running down and away from their barrels. 

Houck also showed a changeup, though he didn’t use it much. It was inconsistent and lagged behind his other two pitches. He throws it 87-89 mph, so the pitch lacked separation from his fastball. On occasion it showed some fade, but other times it looked more like a fastball he took something off and on the firm side. 

Houck’s long-term projection is still up in the air, something that Red Sox Vice President of Amateur Scouting Mike Rikard essentially admitted on draft night, but the Red Sox intend to have him work as a starter for now. We will not learn much on that question this season given the limited pitch counts he is on, as he will not have to turn a lineup over or work deep into games. He also hasn’t had to feature his slider and or changeup consistently. Regardless, Houck has the tools you like to see in a pitcher. He has a solid frame and the early makings of a three-pitch mix. He has to work on his secondary offerings and refine his fastball command, but it is a unique, intriguing skill set that makes him one of the top right-handed arms in the system.

Photo credit: Tanner Houck by Kelly O'Connor

Ian Cundall is Director of Scouting for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @IanCundall.