Tanner Houck is the Future (and Present)

You never know what to expect from young pitchers when the pressure turns up in the postseason. Some can handle it, and even thrive on it, and others collapse and lower their performance level. Good thing for the Red Sox, 25-year old Tanner Houck is thriving in his first taste of postseason baseball this season. Houck has emerged as the top long arm out of the bullpen during this postseason run, using his experience as a starter to help him stretch out in his relief appearances or give a short outing if needed. Houck has appeared in 2 postseason outings thus far and yesterday, he may have saved the Red Sox season.

In the first 3 postseason games for the Red Sox, Houck has appeared twice, throwing a shutout inning with 2 Ks against the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game and yesterday he relieved Chris Sale in the 2nd inning and threw 5 innings of 1 run, 2 hit ball with 5 Ks. The context of yesterday’s performance was incredible. He came in after Sale allowed 5 runs in the first inning, 4 off a Jordan Luplow grand slam, and was asked to stop the bleeding and try to fill some innings. Houck did more than stop the bleeding, he completely shut down the Rays throwing 4 perfect innings before allowing 2 hits, including a solo HR, in his 5th inning of relief. It was exactly what the Red Sox needed to stay in the game and let their offense get back in the game (which they did in a BIG way).

In critical, high pressure situations, Houck has been lights out. His outing prior to his two postseason appearances was essentially another postseason game. He came in early in relief of Chris Sale in the final game of the season at the Washington Nationals in essentially a must win. He spun another absolute gem, going 5 perfect innings with 8 Ks to keep the Red Sox in the game and allow for a comeback (sense a pattern here?). His last 3 appearances, in the highest of pressure situations, he has allowed 2 hits (1 HR), 0 BBs, and accumulated 15Ks in 11 innings. That’s dominance when the Red Sox needed it the most.

If the Red Sox can find a way to beat the Rays twice more and move on to the ALCS, Houck could be a pivotal piece of the pitching staff, whether as a starter or reliever. There will definitely be a decision to make about the starters in a 7-game series, especially with Eduardo Rodriguez‘s struggles and Sale clearly not being right coming off of Tommy John surgery. Eovaldi is definitely the Red Sox #1, and then it’s a mush of Nick Pivetta, Sale, ERod, and maybe Houck to either start or be long-relief. It feels like the Rays “starter” model of the last several years, where the starter is only expected to go a few innings backed up by a deep bullpen.

All of this sets Houck up to be a member of the starting rotation for the Red Sox next year, which is exciting to think about. The Red Sox have been searching for rotation depth, especially some younger talent to infuse energy. Tanner Houck is a guy who can give you a chance to win every 5th day and his ceiling is pretty high. He has the makeup to be a front-end rotation talent with a bit more experience and could be the future #1 in this rotation. Even more importantly, he’s proven he can pitch well and even be dominant when the lights are the brightest.

Are the Red Sox a Legitimate Contender?

The short answer: No.

The longer answer begins with looking at the first 62 games of the season. On their third off-day in a week, the Red Sox sit at 36-26, tied for 1st place in the AL East with the Baltimore Orioles. On the surface, that’s a strong place to be 1/3 of the way through the year. Sitting atop a perennially great division while tied for the 2nd best record in the AL is reason to get excited, but the Red Sox roster still has several concerning holes.

We all know the Red Sox offense can score runs in bunches. They have scored 6+ runs in 30 games this year and eclipsed the double-digit mark 8 times, including 4 straight 10+ run games in early May. The bats have leveled off a little in June, but the lineup is potent top to bottom with different guys who can come up big on any given day. If everyone can stay healthy and no one dives into a deep slump (besides Travis Shaw’s current landslide) this offense is good enough to make a deep playoff run. The bigger concern is the pitching staff.

I know it’s been said 1,348,484 times this season already, but it’s still true: The Red Sox desperately need a top-tier starting pitcher. David Price has begun to look better as of late and hopefully is rounding into his ace self. Steven Wright has pitched like an ace, but we all know how finicky the knuckleball can be, especially over long periods of time. Rick Porcello has had some early success, but has allowed 3+ earned runs in 9 of his 13 starts and has been knocked out of the game before the 7th inning in 4 of his last 6 starts. After that, it’s a jumble of crap.

Eduardo Rodriguez has the potential to be great, but after coming back from his spring training injury, has not been the savior Red Sox nation had hoped. Clay Buchholz is in the bullpen because he is terrible, Joe Kelly is back in Pawtucket for the same reason, and the Red Sox have yet to name a 5th starter for this week because there is no obvious choice waiting in the wing.

The bullpen has been decent this year, but incredibly overtaxed. John Farrell is putting 41-year old Koji Uehara on the mound significantly more than he would like and placing Matt Barnes in high-leverage situations because he has no other choice. Craig Kimbrel has been very good this year, collecting 14 saves, but deep into the season and postseason, who bridges the gap to him? Will Koji and Tazawa have anything left in the tank? With the loss of Carson Smith, the Red Sox also need a late-innings bullpen arm to relieve the pressure.

All of this amounts to trouble the remainder of the season and certainly in the postseason unless some moves are made by the deadline. A common refrain is pitching wins championships and it tends to be true. Hitting can cover-up for mediocre pitching during the regular season, but the postseason exposes those weaknesses. 

In order to win a divisional series you need a strong 1-2 with a solid late-inning bullpen, but to win a championship series or World Series you need 3 strong starters and a deep, strong bullpen. The Red Sox have holes in both the rotation and bullpen. They have a ways to go before I declare them a legitimate contender.