Tanner Houck is off to a book-ended beginning to his second full professional season. Boston’s first-round pick in the 2017 draft allowed seven runs in his first start, and in his fifth, he allowed five. In between, he authored three beauties. Pitching for the Portland Sea Dogs, the 22-year-old righty held Double-A opponents to 10 hits, and a lone marker, over 16 innings.
Houck relies heavily on a worm-killing two-seamer. It’s the pitch that wowed scouts when he was at the University of Missouri, and while it’s once again his go-to, that wasn’t the case over the first half of last season. The Red Sox had Houck put his signature pitch in his back pocket and primarily throw four-seamers against Carolina League competition. The reasoning was sound, but the results weren’t particularly pretty. A fish out of water without his sinker, Houck got hit around.
Come midseason, the Boston brain trust decided that Houck should go back to his old bread and butter. The news came as a relief. His best pitch back at the forefront of his arsenal, Houck proceeded to reestablish himself as one of the organization’s top prospects.
Houck, who takes the hill today in an 11 a.m. matinee, sat down for an in-depth discussion of his two-seamer, and what he gained from last year’s four-seam experiment, at the outset of the current campaign.
David Laurila: How would you describe the transition away from, and back to, your two-seamer?
Tanner Houck: “Honestly, [transitioning back] was just like riding a bike. It was getting back to my staple — back to who I am — and to how my career is going to be going forward. It was enjoyable. At the same time, not having thrown a four-seam in college, learning that side of the coin was really big for me. I’m still throwing one now, and it makes the two-seam that much better. Being able to ride a four-seam through the zone — not sink it — in certain counts has definitely helped. I’m able to give the hitter two different looks with relatively the same pitch.”
Laurila: What kind of movement do you get on your four-seamer?
Houck: “It has some arm-side run, but it’s not what you see from some of the higher-arm-slot guys, where the ball kind of lifts, where it looks like it’s flying upwards on hitters. Mine isn’t like that. It doesn’t look like it’s going straight up. As much as anything, it just stays straighter than my natural two-seam. That’s what results in hitters being fooled by it. Whereas my two-seamer has action downward with some arm-side run, my four stays up. It also has a little bit of arm-side run because of how low — how sidearm — I am.”
Laurila: How often are you looking to throw fours now that you’re back to primarily throwing twos?
Houck: “I couldn’t give you an exact percentage, but maybe 15 or 20 percent? Right now I’m just treating it as something I can throw up in the zone. In the past, I’d throw a two-seam up in the zone and it would just sink back down into the heart of the plate.
“The game is obviously transitioning to the up fastball, and for me it’s also really helpful in getting to my glove side. Being a sinkerballer, I’ve always had a little more trouble throwing a two-seam glove side; it would always kind of run back over the middle of the plate. My four-seam doesn’t run arm-side nearly as much, so it’s easier for me to get it to the outside part of the dish. So now I’ve got the two-seam that’s breaking in on your hands, and from time to time I can go with that four-seam that’s staying truer glove side, and up.
“A lot of my glove-side pitches will be four-seamers and sliders. I’m still working on getting my two-seamer glove side. It’s one of those pitches where there’s little room for error. If you miss the spot by just a tick, all of a sudden that ball is coming right back over the plate. At the level I’m at now — and especially at the big-league level — those balls get hit miles.”
Laurila: What was your reaction when you were told to move away from what has always been your signature pitch?
Houck: “I think there was a little miscommunication. They wanted me to throw four-seams, and where it got mixed up was that I didn’t understood how much they wanted me to throw them. I also wasn’t quite ready to make the transition the way I did. I should have taken it like a baby step. I should have put the training wheels on with it. Instead, I jumped headfirst and threw too many four-seamers. That’s why I saw so much failure. I got hit around the first half of last year because I was going heavily with a pitch I didn’t understand yet.
“Again, the two-seam and four-seam play well together. Looking back, it’s like, ‘OK, I should have been doing this — I should have been working it in slowly — the whole time.’ But like they say, hindsight is 20/20.”
Laurila: What was the conversation like when you were told you could go back to primarily twos?
Houck: “Lance Carter, my pitching coach in Salem, looked at me one week. It was right before my last outing in the first half. He said, ‘Go back to doing what you do.’ He was like, ‘Throw the two-seam; throw whatever you’re most comfortable with.’ That game ended up being one of my better outings all season. I threw primarily two-seams.
“I still threw the four-seam, but when I did it was a matter of, ‘OK, I threw a two-seam, so let’s work it off that.’ It was kind of, ‘I sank the ball in on you three times in a row; well, here’s a different look.’ All of a sudden the hitter would be swinging underneath it, because I’d trained his eyes to see sink. He got a little bit of ride, with some arm-side run, and it was ‘Whoa. That’s not what my brain was expecting there.’”
Laurila: Hearing “go back to doing what you do” presumably came as a relief.
Houck: “It did, because that’s kind of my baby. Like I said, my staple. It’s the pitch I got through college with. I was a two-pitch pitcher — I had a two-seam and a slider — and I’d had so much success with the two-seam that if I didn’t throw it again, it would be, ‘OK. You’re done for.’”
Laurila: Is there anything unique about the grip, or the way that you release the pitch?
Houck: “I mostly just grip it like a normal two-seam, although this past offseason I worked on getting it a little more consistent in terms of … the way Corey Kluber throws his is more of a laminar. That’s a term we were using at P3 [Premier Pitching Performance], the facility I was throwing at back in St. Louis. Kluber’s two-seam has a little different pattern in seam orientation, how it’s spinning to get the movement. He’s not relying on pronation, and stuff like that.
“For me, at release point it’s almost like I’m trying to throw a cutter now. If you look at the seams on the ball … if a two-seam is facing your chest, square on, it’s slanted to the right a little bit. You can see the flat, white piece of the ball kind of pointing toward the second baseman. Doing that seam-orientation is what draws the ball to come back.”
Laurila: That sounds like something Trevor Bauer might say.
Houck: “Bauer is a little smarter than me. I’m not afraid to admit that. He’s definitely on the front end of things like getting the seam orientation right. That’s kind of where the game has transitioned to. I’m still learning and growing with it. But I’ve definitely seen my pitches become a higher quality because of the TrackMan and the Rapsodo. Being able to see, ‘OK, the ball was spinning this way,’ and then going to, ‘What did you feel?’ … from there it’s, ‘OK, I know what I’m striving for with that pitch.’”
Laurila: Are you mostly looking for depth on your two-seamer, or is run nearly as important?
Houck: “I prefer having a little bit of both. My depth has actually increased. Is that because of the seam-orientation? I couldn’t tell you — I’m not a guru with that stuff — but it’s definitely more consistent. My sinker is more consistent, down and arm side. It gets the down-and-run action on it more consistently.
“Being able to repeat that is huge When the ball is moving consistently, in the same pattern… I know that it’s going to drop between five and eight inches, and it’s going to get two to three inches of arm-side run, so when I’m throwing it inside to a righty, I know where I need to aim it. If I throw it at this part, it will end up where I want it.
“There’a also the tunneling aspect. That’s another way the game has been transitioning. People have always done it, but we never really knew about it like we do now. Back in the day… I guarantee that if you could go back and look closely at video, every one of the best pitchers tunneled the ball really well.
“The launch-angle swing is kind of the same thing. Everything we’re learning with all of this technology is new, but at the same time, people have been doing these things ever since baseball has been around. We didn’t necessarily know why Nolan Ryan’s ball looked like it was flying up and out of the stadium. It was because he spun it higher than anyone else in the game.”
Laurila: Back to your own game: Did you go to more of a curveball when you were throwing a lot more four-seamers, or did it remain a slider?
Houck: “I still called it a slider, but I’d changed up the grip a little to more of a spike. Now I’ve kind of switched it up again, due to my shoulders. In the past my shoulders have been level when I’m throwing; I’d come through and my shoulders would typically be very level. Last year, early on, I would kind of arch my back, and then my glove-side shoulder would kind of dip downwards. Then my right shoulder would be lifted up. That created a bad postural … if you look, my shoulders were dropping like this when I was releasing the ball.”
Laurila: What was causing that to happen?
Houck: “I think it was just me, subconsciously, trying to get ride on the ball. I was trying to get on top of it and really rip it down to get that flying-up action. But then the spiked grip for the slider … I’m not doing that anymore. The spiked grip was giving me a little more depth, but at the same time it led to me throwing more what I would call ‘spinners’ — it would spin out of the hand and only move an inch or two. Now that I’m back to a more conventional grip, the movement is more consistent. That’s what pitching is all about. Regardless of the pitches you throw, it’s about being consistent.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.