For the second start in a row, pitcher Tanner Houck failed to pitch five full innings, managing to only get one out in the fifth before getting pulled. In 12 starts this season, Houck has pitched at least five innings only four times. Early in the season it seemed the Red Sox were trying to limit his workload. Now it’s clear that Houck performance significantly drops off the deeper he goes into games, leaving some to wonder what his role on the staff should be.
In his first time pitching through the lineup, Houck has a 1.67 ERA. That number jumps to 4.13 his second time through the lineup and 27.00 the third time. While his strikeout percentage stays around 29-30% his first two times through the lineup, he only strikes out 11% of the batters he faces the third time.
Though he has only pitched 2.2 innings facings batters for the third time, Houck has faced 18 batters, given up seven hits and eight earned runs. While his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is consistent the from the first and second times through the lineup (2.28 to 2.25), that figures balloons to 14.79, showing his struggles are not entirely due to bad defense.
This puts into question what Houck’s role should be for the rest of the season as well as next season. Houck has certainly displayed the ability to be a starter. Unfortunately being unable to get through the fifth puts a lot of pressure on the bullpen if he isn’t sharp.
Role for a Potential Playoff Run?
Assuming Boston can hold their playoff spot, they will host the AL Wild Card Game and likely start Chris Sale. From there, if Boston wins, they would head into ALDS for a best-of-5 series. Nathan Eovaldi would open the first game and then it’s a question how the rest of the rotation plays out. The decision would come down to choosing between Houck, Nick Pivetta, and Eduardo Rodriguez for two spots. As tempting as it would be to start Houck, having him in the bullpen may be best for the team.
Having Houck come out of the bullpen will give Cora some flexibility to deploy him when needed. E-Rod could pitch six solid innings just as likely get pulled after three. Garrett Richards has been solid ever since getting moved to bullpen and having another reliable long reliever would go a long way.
Houck has yet to give up a run this season as a relief pitcher. Though the sample size is small (6.2 innings), he has shown that batters struggle the first time they face him. Additionally, Red Sox relievers have a combined 3.93 ERA and suffered through come inconsistencies. Closer Matt Barnes has an ERA over 11.00 since the beginning of August. Garrett Whitlock is the only qualified reliever with an ERA under 3.00.
Despite his inability to go deep into games, Houck has been a solid in the starting rotation. Long-term he should develop some more stamina. With a full offseason and spring training, he should be able to build up some arm strength. Houck has been one of the best pitchers to come through Boston’s farm system. He may be best coming out of the bullpen for the time being, but don’t be surprised to see him finally solidify his spot in the rotation next year.