Boston Red Sox: Tanner Houck cements role for 2021

Boston Red Sox rookie Tanner Houck kicked off his MLB career with three dominant wins against playoff teams.

Let’s start with the obvious observation here about the Boston Red Sox 2020 season. The pitching staff was an absolute disaster.

Despite going into the final day of the year with the league’s second-worst team ERA (5.66) and being the only major league pitching staff with a negative Wins Above Replacement value (-0.2), the Boston Red Sox should enter the offseason feeling fairly optimistic about the 2021 starting rotation.

Chris Sale (Tommy John) and Eduardo Rodriguez (myocarditis) may not be ready to go on Opening Day next year, but the organization is hopeful that both return to the mound at some point in 2021.

The bright spot here, and the main reason for the optimism, is rookie starting pitcher Tanner Houck.

More Red Sox: Boston sets 2020 attendance mark

If you are a Red Sox fan or someone who closely follows prospects across the league, you are already familiar with the scouting report on the former first-round pick out of Missouri.

Can Houck develop a viable third pitch? Can he handle major league left-handed hitters? Is he better suited to start or come out of the bullpen?

All valid questions and ones that three starts to close out 2020 won’t answer, but the Red Sox can take comfort in how the rookie handled himself in his big league debut.

Houck made his debut on September 15th against the playoff-bound Miami Marlins and wasn’t phased. Houck tossed five scoreless frames, allowing two hits (both singles) and three walks while striking out seven.

He followed up an impressive MLB debut with his first start at Fenway Park against yet another playoff team in the New York Yankees, arguably the hottest team in the big leagues down the stretch.

Backed by 10 runs of offensive support, Houck allowed just one run (unearned) over six innings, walking three and striking out four. It was an ideal dive into this historic rivalry, relying on three double-play balls to offset his shaky command.

On Saturday night, Houck made his final appearance of the 2020 season and saved his best outing for last. Going up against yet another playoff team in the Atlanta Braves, Houck dominated Atlanta’s daunting lineup.

Improving to 3-0, Houck allowed his first earned run of his career (a home run to Dansby Swanson), but he fanned 10 Braves hitters across six innings, walking three and allowing three hits.

His third-straight dominant start gives him an eye-opening final line- 3-0 record, 0.53 ERA, 33.3% strikeout rate, .113 average against, and a 0.88 WHIP.

Houck’s most oft-used pitch, the slider, was unhittable. Opponents were hitless against Houck’s slider and whiffed nearly 37% of the time. That happens when the horizontal movement on the pitch ranks 80% above league average. We didn’t see much of his splitter, a pitch Houck developed to replace his changeup, but he’s already stated that one of his offseason goals to get more feel for the pitch.

If the Boston Red Sox wanted to use Tanner Houck out of the pen, they would have themselves an extremely dominant bullpen arm, but don’t expect to see Houck coming out of the bullpen in 2021.

Next: Great news for Eduardo Rodriguez

To see this type of production out of starting pitcher to close out the 2020 season is promising and certainly cements his role as a starting pitcher in 2021. If Sale and Rodriguez are able to come back healthy and Eovaldi and Perez pitch up to their abilities next year, Houck gives the Boston Red Sox quite the rotation to work with next year.