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One pitch helped define the rebuilding of Red Sox first-round pick Tanner Houck

Rob Bradford
March 08, 2018 - 1:43 pm

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The moment would have stood on its own without any kind of backstory. 

The Red Sox' first-round pick from last June, Tanner Houck, strikes out both J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts in a minor-league spring training game. It would have certainly been good enough for the 21-year-old considering a year ago he was just kicking off his junior season at the University of Missouri.

"It was cool getting to face those guys, some guys with a lot of awards on their shelf," Houck said. "It was a great experience getting to face them and having some success. It's still early and I have to continue to develop. It wasn't perfect, but I gave it my all."

"That kid has a pretty good arm," added Betts.

But there was more to the story than just the results.

After getting Martinez on a well-located fastball on the outside corner, Houck came back and got Betts to wave at his curveball for the second punch-out. It was that pitch which punctuated the kind of three-month transformation most first-rounders don't ever have to go through. It was this newly-discovered spike-curveball that might just allow the righty to become the starting pitcher some organizations didn't see as a reality.

"That was the new pitch I kind of developed this offseason," he said. "Before I was fastball, slider and changeup. I was back home and I thought, 'Let's see if I can add a fourth pitch into the repertoire to get hitters off balance.' I mean, I plan on starting my whole career. You see guys nowadays with four elite pitches and I think that's what you truly need as a starter.

"It's definitely come a long way. I've been throwing it just over two months now. The best line I was always told was that it takes three years to develop an elite pitch. The first year you kind of learn how to throw it. The second year you learn how to control it. The third year you really learn how to master it and do whatever you want with it. I'm just on the beginning trails with it, but I'm super-excited with how it's come along."

For the Red Sox, the pitch is just part of what has been a unique evolution ever since Houck was taken with the 23rd overall pick last June.

"One of the things we liked about Tanner in the draft is that we thought he was a top of the first-round pitcher and because of the style he was throwing he wasn't pitching up to his potential. Literally, the pitches he was throwing was holding him back a little bit," said Red Sox assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister. "We saw a power guy with a very flexible, loose, springy body that was capable of doing things that a lot of guys aren't capable of. We were really interested to see what he would look like as a power pitcher instead of a sinkerballer. He always had tremendous control, never walking anybody.

"He's been amazing because you don't usually have a first-rounder where you almost take him back to the drawing board immediately. But it was just an opportunity because he has such an aptitude for pitching, physically he's very talented, and he was very open to maximizing his performance. All of those ingredients led us to see him as a four-seam, power curveball, power changeup, cutter/slider guy who has a chance to be a long-term starter and not a reliever."

Another change the Red Sox have made with Houck is adjusting how his body is positioned when throwing the baseball. Instead of a side-to-side action, resulting in more a sidearm motion, he is now being taught to keep more upright, with his energy going directly to home plate. The result has been a 98 mph fastball and an arm angle that is starting to creep up.

"It has changed his physical profile as far as how he's going down the mound now," Bannister said.

 

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