Baseball is an ever-evolving game, that much is undeniable. However, not all of the changes that occur are necessarily good. For example, with a many hitters selling out their ability to make contact for an extra burst of power, the strikeout has become far more common and acceptable than in years gone by. Similarly, in recent years, there has been a premium put on pitchers who are able to blow pitches by hitters. There has been an obvious increase in velocity across the league, both from starters and relievers.
Much like with batters, however, not every pitcher is blessed with a natural and easy power. However, feeling the pressure to pitch with more and more speed, pitchers will sell out their ability to locate their pitches for a little extra velocity. Not every pitcher is forced into this eventuality, with some who can use their fantastic fastball with exact control. An example of this is Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale, who can reach 99 miles per hour and consistently had walk rates well below average.
The next starter with above average control on his enormous fastball could be Missouri right-handed pitcher Tanner Houck, a projected 1st round pick in this year’s MLB draft.
Houck’s biggest strength is his biggest by a mile: his monstrous fastball. Like many a large-bodied righthander before him, Houck has a fastball that is capable of easily blowing away even advanced hitters. He will sit anywhere from 92-96 miles per hour in starts, dialing it up to 98 mph at times when he wants a little extra gas.
In the environment of today’s game, the premium that is put on velocity making this ability among starting pitchers more and more commonplace. There are plenty of guys who throw harder than Houck does. What makes him stand out is the movement he is able to produce on the offering. MLB.com claims that it has “a lot of sinking and boring action.” This kind of movement on a fastball draws whiffs as well as a ton of ugly swings that result in weak contact.
Note: “Boring action” is synonymous to “running action,” meaning it comes onto the hands of right-handed hitters.
Surprisingly, Houck has also demonstrated above-average control in his three years at Missouri. His walk rate has been a steady 2.3 walks per nine innings the last two years thank to his ability to command the fastball and throw strikes. His decreasing home run rate in his junior year also might be a reflection of his ability to control the hard sinker down in the zone, preventing big hits.
He also shows better stamina than many fastball pitchers, showing an ability to stay effective late into games. Over the course of his college career, Houck has thrown a total of six complete games. Two of those performances were also shutouts. That is an impressive feat for a pitcher who lives off his fastball and generates a lot of strikeouts.
While Houck is a college pitcher, he has less polish than might be expected from a player of his age. This brings his floor a little lower than teams will be hoping for when taking a starting pitcher out of the college ranks. This is manifest in some part by the two offerings that he uses to back up the heater.
The first of these is his breaking ball, which is considered to be more of a slider than a curveball by scouts. It is inconsistent, though, and it lacks sharp movement. MLB.com calls it “sweepy,” and The Good Phight points to variations in Houck’s release point as the cause of the slurvy movement on the pitch. It has shown tight movement at times, so it would not be much of a surprise to see the pitch take a step forward in the near future while under professional guidance.
The last pitch that Houck will show batters is a changeup. It is the farthest behind of his three offerings, and he uses it sparingly. It shows the potential to become an average pitch in due time, but he has never used it enough to refine it. Reps will be the key here.
While Houck is not as advanced as one might hope when drafting a starter out of college, his fastball gives him a pretty high floor. A worst case scenario — besides injuries or a complete flameout, of course — would see Houck become a decent bullpen arm that can be called on for multiple innings if need be. A sharper slider or a surprising development in his change could spell a workhorse No. 3 starter.
Expect Houck to go near the middle of the first round, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he slid to the back of the first.