For starting pitching option No. 15 in Game No. 49 of this science experiment 2020 season, the Red Sox decided to do something really wacky. They went with someone they drafted themselves.
Now, to be fair, Kyle Hart — the ninth rider on this carousel — is also a Red Sox draft choice, a fifth-year senior taken in the 19th round four years ago. There is a significant difference, however, between a player like Hart, who’ll be lucky to even play affiliated pro ball should the streamlined minors and draft of commissioner Rob Manfred’s dreams take hold, and Tanner Houck, whom Boston took 24th overall in 2017 and gave $2.6 million in the hopes he can be the next of a long-dormant breed.
The homegrown Red Sox starting pitcher.
“This is a moment I’ll look back on for the rest of my life,” Houck told reporters on Tuesday night, in the afterglow of 86 pitches that went as well as anyone could have dreamed. “As time goes on, I’ll get to appreciate it even more.”
May we get to say the same. Even those of us who did the logical thing and watched it on DVR once the Celtics were over.
Five innings, two singles, no runs, three walks, and seven strikeouts — the last worth a $700 donation for his Pitch for Adoption fundraiser, should you need one more reason to be excited about his rise. That arguably being the best start submitted in a Red Sox uniform this year is best not thought about much, nor is the general lack of punch from the Marlins, who are 10th in the National League in runs and among baseball’s more chase-happy teams.
They certainly looked that part Tuesday, three of Houck’s strikeouts coming on frisbee sliders that ended up more than a foot outside the strike zone. Houck got ahead by attacking, with eight of the 19 Marlins batters he faced taking his first pitch for a strike (and a ninth, Brian Anderson, getting a gift ball one in the fourth), then stayed out of the heart of the plate. That slider was the star — on 11 swings, Marlins hitters missed five and put just one in play (for an outing-ending groundout).
He caught a break on his first batter, Corey Dickerson thrown out by Yairo Munoz trying to stretch a clean single to a double. When Houck faced trouble in the second, two on and two out, he got to face Jazz Chisholm, whose No. 70 should tell you about where he sits in the MLB pecking order. (He made his debut two weeks ago.) Leaving Miguel Rojas screaming at himself in the fourth, though, after a full-count Houck slider stranded a pair? Far be it for me to tell Dennis Eckersley not to be excited.
“That was a big-league pitch,” the Hall of Famer mused, seeming as impressed with Houck’s poise as his stuff.
“Big game, big [first] impression,” Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke told reporters. “It was something we needed. We needed to see a starter go like that and throw up all those zeros. Pretty cool.”
Boston’s success in the years since Jon Lester (a second-round choice in 2002) and, to a lesser degree, Clay Buchholz (a compensatory pick in 2005) makes clear teams don’t have to build their rotations around cheap, self-cultivated talent. It certainly makes life easier, though, and to a degree more rewarding. Jacob deGrom with the Mets, Blake Snell in Tampa, Stephen Strasburg in Washington, Clayton Kershaw with the Dodgers, Aaron Nola in Philadelphia, Shane Bieber (among others) with Cleveland … those are the guys you want, and it’s a lot cheaper to build them yourself than it is get them on the resale market.
The Red Sox have certainly produced position players since Lester’s rise. They’ve produced useful relievers, from Jon Papelbon (as he was known when he made his debut as a starter in 2005) to Daniel Bard to Brandon Workman to Matt Barnes. But starting pitchers? Beyond Buchholz, the list goes to Justin Masterson and Felix Doubront, and falls off a cliff.
Heck, it feels like they produce a Bobby Dalbec every couple years, though I hope his early home run barrage ends somewhere better than those of Michael Chavis, Travis Shaw, and Will Middlebrooks. (Or Sam Horn and Todd Benzinger, for you fellow ’80s kids.) Time will tell, of course, whether all the strikeouts we’ve seen to date will become too much for even the modern game.
As it will with what, again, seems to be a promising crop alongside Houck, who was just fifth among pitchers in Boston’s latest top-prospect list. Bryan Mata leads that group, the 21-year-old for whom “just about everything he throws is top-shelf,” said Triple A pitching coach Paul Abbott to the Globe. Connor Seabold and Nick Pivetta, acquired from Philadelphia in the Workman trade, show promise. Jay Groome, a first-round pick the year before Houck, has come through Tommy John surgery and made the most of his time at the alternate site this year.
In a season largely bereft of optimism, Houck’s Tuesday was a needed dose. (Credit to Roenicke in that regard, who resisted the urge to send Houck back out for the sixth after a quick fifth, when he would’ve faced Miami’s 2-3-4 hitters for a third time.) We saw little of his splitter, the pitch he’s trying to develop in place of a mediocre changeup, to give him a true weapon against lefties. His fastball velocity, 95-96 mph out of the blocks, quickly tailed to the low 90s.
No matter. This is no year to nitpick. Tuesday was absolutely a good start.
A good start being nothing to sneeze at, as these Red Sox seem fit to keep reminding us.