It turns out that 2020 wasn’t bad for everyone.
For Red Sox prospect Tanner Houck, the pandemic-shortened season was the one in which he established that he could be a rotation building block for years to come.
It is a year that Houck plans on using a springboard for the success he hopes to have in 2021 and beyond.
Houck, the Red Sox's No. 10 prospect per MLB Pipeline, was called up to the big league club in September and made the first three starts of his career. He was tremendous in all three of them, going 3-0 with a 0.53 ERA against the Marlins, Yankees and Braves -- three teams that made the postseason.
Houck's late-season surge was a big development for the Red Sox, who have struggled to develop homegrown pitchers into impact performers in recent years.
While there was no Minor League season in 2020, Houck set himself apart at the alternate training site, which led to his callup and subsequent success.
Participating in this year's Rookie Program, Houck reflected on his September success and the challenges ahead in an interview with MLB.com’s Jim Callis.
“I think just having the alternate [training] site was very helpful for me in my career, but obviously making my debut and just getting my feet wet up at that level and having that confidence going into next year I think is the biggest thing,” Houck said. “I feel like going into next year, I’m a lot more prepared. I kind of have like a little bit more understanding of what to expect. Obviously, there’s things that I’ll still be learning along the way. For the most part, I am truly blessed to have at least gotten my feet a little wet and ready to go.”
This doesn’t mean that Houck is under the impression that he can just show up at Spring Training and land a spot in manager Alex Cora’s starting rotation.
“Pretty much for me, it’s go in and fight for a spot,” Houck said. “That’s what I expect. I don’t expect to walk in there Day 1 and have a spot in the rotation. I know that it’s going to be a lot of hard work. We’ve got some great guys there that are going to be fighting for the spot against me, and I’m ready for the competition. 2021, I’m ready for really whatever.”
Houck prioritized his continued development this offseason by working out at Cressey Sports Performance in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., which has become a hotbed for many established Major Leaguers.
“For me, it was surrounding myself with elite competition. I moved myself down to Jupiter and started going to Cressey Sports Performance, and it was truly the best thing I could have done,” Houck said. “I wanted to surround myself with the biggest fish I can, and ultimately, I think that’s what drives people more, is whenever you see other people in the weight room that are pushing their bodies just as much as you are, [and especially] whenever it is elite competition.”
The Red Sox had high hopes for the hard-throwing righty from the University of Missouri when they made him their first-round selection (24th overall) in the 2017 Draft.
In his years climbing through the farm system, Houck often tried to tinker with his three-quarters arm slot, perhaps listening to the critics who said starting pitchers who throw that way don’t have staying power.
“I tried to play around with having a little higher slot and trying to change some things up that my body didn’t want to do, and it reacted the way it did and ultimately I think that’s why I struggled at times the past few years,” he said. “I definitely had some prolonged stuff that happened because of it. I was searching for my arm slot sometimes. It was like, super awkward. Sometimes I would be super over the top and other times I’d be way too low.”
The benefit of not having a Minor League season in 2020 is that Houck had a chance to really rediscover his arm slot in the less-pressurized environment of the alternate training site.
What Houck learned is that he’s at his best with the lower slot that has always been the most natural for him.
“Yeah, I think ultimately I just listened to my body,” he said. “Ultimately, now going into 2021, I feel like I have my arm slot back, and 2020 was great for that, going into the alternate [training] site. I’d also heard people saying, ‘You can’t be a starter, you can’t hold up.’ But that just fueled the fire. You can say all you want about me, and at the end of the day, I’m still going to prove you wrong and continue to fight. I love starting, and that’s what I plan on doing.”