Houck strengthens case for rotation in spring debut

February 26th, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When Red Sox manager Alex Cora dropped the nugget recently that added the most velocity out of everyone on the pitching staff, it seemed to be an indication that the righty did so by design.

It turns out the uptick came naturally, and that’s a good sign of where Houck is at physically and mechanically going into the season.

“No, not by design at all,” Houck said about his velocity increase. “I think it's just a factor of being fully healthy and back to my normal self. With that being said, having a good offseason of building a lot of strength definitely also helps with that. So also very small mechanical changes that I've made coming into camp, feel a lot better, feel more directionally sound and more explosive towards home plate.”

Despite not having his best velocity on Monday, the righty looked sharp in his Grapefruit League debut, firing two perfect innings in Boston's 7-6 walk-off win against the Phillies at JetBlue Park.

In the battle for the final spot in Boston’s rotation, Houck is going against his best friend Garrett Whitlock and Josh Winckowski.

“Show up each and every day, put your best foot forward, and go about your business and honestly make it a hard decision on him is the best thing that we can all do,” Houck said. “Because it means we're all pitching pretty well. So if that's the case, I like where this team is at, for sure.”

Per Statcast, Houck averaged 95.2 mph with his four-seamer in 2022, but dipped to 93.9 last year. In ’22, only four of Houck’s 32 appearances were as a starter. Last year, he was used exclusively as a starter in his 21 MLB appearances.

But his velocity dip last year probably had more to do with the fact he was coming off back surgery than his change in roles.

“At this point last year, I felt like I was back to 100 percent after the back surgery,” Houck said. “I realized a little bit later on that I was fighting some stuff physically. So to have a completely normal offseason was great for just the strength side and mental side to fully prepare for a full 162.”

While Cora volunteered the information about Houck’s velocity, the 27-year-old tries not to preoccupy himself with radar-gun readings.

“It’s something that I try to stay away from looking at honestly," Houck said. "I'll get in my head about that and think I need to try to throw harder and start overthrowing and then mechanics get out of whack and everything like that. I know if I stay smooth, smooth is quick. So as long as I stay on that path, I like where the velo is at.”

The key development goal the Sox have for Houck this season is for him to be more of a strike thrower. He worked hard at that in the offseason.

“Really just letting my lower half work and then keeping the upper half as still as possible,” said Houck. “Anyone who's ever shot a gun or shot a bow, wherever your side is, that's where it's going and I’m treating my left shoulder as my sight, pointed towards home.

"If I get that over-wrapped, then it's pointing either at the third base dugout or the hitter. As long as I keep that in mind, keep my head still, going towards home plate, I like my chances of getting it over the plate."

Bello won’t pitch in D.R.

Last month, Red Sox righty said it would “mean the world” to him to be able to pitch in one of the two exhibition games the Red Sox are playing against the Rays in his native Dominican Republic this spring.

However, Cora announced on Monday that it’s not going to happen. The reason is the calendar.

Bello will pitch in the first series of the regular season and Cora said that pitching him in the D.R. on March 9 or 10 would take him off that path. The Sox open their season in Seattle on March 28.

“I just had a conversation with him,” said Cora. “He wants to pitch so bad at Quisqueya Stadium, but it’s not going to happen,” Cora said. “He’s not lined up for that. And he understands. He’ll go with us, and obviously see his family and all that stuff.

"He'll throw a bullpen over there. Enjoy the festivities and the two days should be fun. But as far as where we at right now, just get him ready to pitch in that first series [of the season].”