For most of the past decade, a relief prospect the quality of righthander Zac Houston would have checked in just outside the Detroit Tigers’ top 10 list, if not higher. While he does not have the high-caliber arm possessed by Joe Jimenez, for example, Houston has the stuff to succeed at the major league level. After a dominant 2018 season that saw him settle in as the closer for the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, Houston is now knocking at the door of his first major league call-up.
So, the fact that Houston checks in 30th on BYB’s 2019 rankings could be seen as a bit of a slight. In reality, it’s simply a reflection of the vastly improved depth throughout the Tigers farm system over the past two seasons. With a host of intriguing position players and starting pitchers now swelling the ranks, Houston’s position is more about the improvement in the system that any particular flaw of his own. There are still a host of interesting relief prospects, from Reed Garrett and John Schreiber to Matt Hall and Eduardo Jimenez, in the Tigers’ system, all of whom Houston edged out to make the top 30.
While he doesn’t boast the collegiate pedigree of Bryan Garcia, or quite the eye-popping stuff of triple digit arms like Wladimir Pinto, Sandy Baez, or Jason Foley, Houston has done nothing but succeed at each level of the minor leagues. Questions remain about the consistency of his stuff and command, but he has himself in position to put those questions to the test at the major league level in 2019.
Houston was an 11th round selection by the Tigers, the 325th overall pick in the 2016 amateur draft. He was born in Louisiana, but grew up in Poplarsville, Miss. He played his college ball for Mississippi State University, where he was the teammate of outfielder Jake Robson, BYB’s 16th ranked Tigers prospect in 2019. Robson was picked by the Tigers three rounds earlier in the same draft. Houston put together a good SEC career, ultimately converting to a relief role in his final season, where he posted a 1.63 ERA across 38 2⁄3 innings of work.
Houston’s most obvious gift as a pitcher is his size. The recently turned 24-year-old stands 6’ 5 tall, and weighs in officially at 250 pounds. He puts that frame to use, generating mid-90s heat and some downward plane on his fastball despite a funky, crow-hopping stride. He stays back a little late in his delivery and has some arm lag, but when he’s in sync, he explodes off the mound, giving him extra extension that makes him tough for hitters to time.
Our own Kenon Carter got a pretty good side view back in August.
A little Zac Houston side-view from last night. Video courtesy of Scott Marcin. pic.twitter.com/W9Yn0wF9kl— Detroit Tigers MiLB Tracker (@Tiger_Lifer) August 25, 2018
Houston’s fastball has some run on it, and he pops the glove from 92-95 mph with regularity. He can reach back for more at times, and the fastball plays up beyond that velocity band as a result of his delivery. He also shows some high-end reliever mentality in his willingness to attack hitters inside. That, combined with his size and power fastball, make for a legitimate presence on the mound late in games.
Houston backs the fastball with a curveball that continues to show glimpses of a legitimately nasty pitch by major league standards. As it stands, it’s consistently good enough to dominate minor league hitters, though when Houston is out of sync it can morph into a slower, flatter version that is more hittable.
Houston was a lot more consistent with the hook throughout most of 2018. He broke off enough nasty ones to think that a consistent plus curve isn’t too far-fetched a hope. There’s a reason he punched out 80 hitters in 55 1⁄3 innings across Double-A and Triple-A levels. If he can build on his improvements this year, Houston is liable to make an impressive major league debut at some point in 2019.
It’s always command with a reliever, isn’t it? The same is true with Houston, but unlike others in bullpens throughout the Tigers’ minor league system, the big righthander has given some reason for optimism in the past year. His walk rate spiked a bit in 2017 and early in 2018, as he moved quickly through Advanced-A ball and then a short stint with the Erie SeaWolves in April and May of this year.
However, Houston turned things around when he joined the Mud Hens in June. He tossed 38 innings for the Hens last summer. His walk rate was 11 percent, the lowest mark he has posted in full season ball. For a reliever who can rack up the strikeouts, and Houston can, that’s still a respectable walk rate. He punched out 37.7 percent of hitters he faced, so his strikeout-to-walk ratio is very good. It’s a good sign that, as Houston has trimmed the walks, he hasn’t been hit any harder, and the strikeouts are still coming in droves.
Moving to the upper levels this season, the question was whether his stuff would play, and if he could improve his strike throwing. In both cases, Houston’s 2018 season has to be regarded as a success. Still, there’s an indication in both his history of control issues and his somewhat unorthodox footwork that he likely still has some struggles ahead of him in this department.
After a great 2018 season, Houston’s next step is to get off to a good start in 2019, impress in spring training, and trust that he will be one of the first players called up as the Tigers progress through their season. Houston may take some lumps when that day arrives, but he will be an interesting young reliever to watch this season and in years to come. He’s a decent bet to be one of the Tigers’ more impactful first-year players in 2019.
Projected 2019 Team: Toledo Mud Hens
Right now, Reed Garrett, the Tigers Rule 5 draft selection, is probably Houston’s main obstacle to a major league debut. There will be competition this spring, but because Garrett has to remain on the 25-man roster or be released, he would have to really blow a tire for Houston to start the season in Detroit. Still, with pitchers especially, there is always the possibility that an injury or a poor training camp from their competition opens a door. If Houston can continue to tighten his game just a little, he will find himself in the show sometime in 2019.