Red Sox First Rounder Tanner Houck on Killing Worms

Tanner Houck was 20 years old when the Red Sox selected him 24th overall out of the University of Missouri in this year’s amateur draft. Another number is every bit as important. According to some evaluators, the 6-foot-5 right-hander’s sinking fastball grades out as a 70 (on the 20-80 scouting scale). Kevin Brown comparisons have accompanied his ascent to professional baseball.

Houck augments his signature pitch with a slider and a changeup, neither of which grades out as plus at this stage of development. But each has potential, and thanks to the quality of his go-to, they’re almost icing on the cake. Delivered from a low three-quarters arm angle, Houck’s bowling-ball heater is an open invitation for an infield roller.

Houck, who is getting his feet wet with the short-season Lowell Spinners, talked about his game shortly before making his professional debut in mid July.

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Houck on pitching technology: “The place I work out at in St. Louis, P3, has gotten into the technology stuff, using Rapsodo, learning about spin rate — stuff like that. But I’ve never really looked into it. I’ve only ever known, ‘pick up a baseball, step on a rubber, and compete for however long I’m out there.’

“Numbers are great, but ultimately you, as a person, are going to know yourself better. When I’m out on the mound, I’m confident with what I feel. I don’t think a computer can tell you how to pitch. Me, myself, and I are who know my body best.

“I’ve always known that my sinker plays well low in the zone, and that when I elevate it is when people start getting hits off of me. I’ve never needed anyone to tell me that. But I am starting to pay attention to, and learn, some of that stuff. I know that it can be useful. At the same time, I don’t want to look at it like it’s the Bible.”

On comps and fellow Missouri alums: “I’ve heard Justin Masterson as a comp a few times. I’ve heard Kevin Brown. I’ve heard Max Scherzer, because he went to the University of Missouri and we both throw from a little bit of that lower three-quarters slot.

“I’ve gotten to talk to Max a few times. Our strength coach at Missouri got me in touch with him, and with Kyle Gibson. I would text them a few times here and there, and pick their brains. Max is a guy who has really been on top of the mountain — he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball right now, if not the best pitcher in baseball. He’s a competitor. Everything I’ve seen, and talked to him about, is going out there and being yourself, and competing with what you have.

“Kyle is a sinkerball guy, so it’s really good to get feedback from him. I can pick his brain about, ‘why throw the sinker in this situation?,’ and things along those lines. I like looking at other guys and comparing our games, and learning from their both their success and their… I don’t like to call it failure, but rather when they get themselves in trouble. That’s something I can study.”

On his signature pitch: “Honestly, I just call it my fastball. I don’t consider it a sinker. I don’t consider it a two-seam. It’s just my normal fastball, although it is a two-seam grip — a normal two-seam grip. I do have a lower arm slot, and I do come across my body a little bit, and maybe plays a little bit of a role in the movement I get, as opposed to someone who comes a little more over the top.

“When I was going into my freshman year of high school, a coach said, ‘hold it this way; throw a two-seamer.’ I tried it, and he said, ‘it’s the same velocity as your (four-seam) fastball and it moves; this is the best pitch you have.’

“Before, I’d only thrown a four-seamer. Why? As a kid, I always wanted to be the guy that threw the ball hard, and every time I saw someone throw hard, it was a four-seam fastball. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that it’s great to have velocity, but movement is just as hard to hit as 98-mph.”

On movement and velocity: “When I’m up in the zone it tends to flatten out and be more side-to-side, but if I’m living around the knees, it drops and has some arm-side run to it. That’s when it’s at it’s best. I have to make sure I have my release point out front. You don’t want to be on the side of it, and coming across the baseball — you want to be almost like you’re throwing it as hard as you can, straight as an arrow, but then the grip takes over, causing it to drop.

“I’ve found that the movement on my ball is best when my velo is around 91-93, or maybe 94. When it’s 96-97-98, it starts to flatten out a little bit. I still get some life to it, but not nearly as much. I do think that certain situations call for reaching that next level, and getting those higher velos — the 96s, 97s, and 98s. If I need a strikeout with a runner on third and less than two outs… that’s when I’m going to bust out my best stuff.

“I guess that’s kind of a Catch 22. I’m sacrificing some movement for something firmer, that they haven’t quite seen yet. They’re thinking, ‘He’s in the 91-93 range,’ and all of a sudden here comes 96-97. That does ramp it up a little for them, maybe get them a little late on a few pitches. It speeds up their bats, so when I throw my slider, all of a sudden they’re way out front and looking silly on it.”

On his secondary offerings: “My changeup is something I still need to work on. That’s a pitch I’ve been working on for a few years, trying to get it to a prestige level. My slider has really come a long way. It’s a lot tighter, firmer. According to the people at the place I work out at back home, the spin rate on it is working well.

“I base everything off my two-seam fastball. With my slider, instead of having my fingers on the inside part of the two seams, I have them on the outside, and then I cross over the seam, right where the knuckle of my middle finger is. It crosses over the lace, onto the horseshoe. It’s a grip I found way back in my junior year of high school, and ever since then, it’s been the most comfortable for me.”

On his power-sinker mindset: “I’ve thrown a sinker as my fastball for so long now that the movement isn’t an issue. I’ve learned how to control it, and really understand where it’s going to go in the zone. I don’t really work up in the zone. I’ve tried it in the past — tried to get that four-seam spin where the ball appears to rise — but that isn’t what I do well. I’ve always lived down in the zone with my sinker, and honestly, I’ll always live and die with that pitch.

“For me, it’s always about being on the attack. It’s never… I mean, I know it sounds like a cliche, but just go right after them. Don’t dance around the zone. Don’t be picking corners. The pressure is on the batter, so just be a bulldog.

“At the same time, I’m not very emotional out there on the mound. That’s a trait I’ve had ever since I was little. I don’t let myself get too high or too low. I’ve always kind of been like, ‘OK, it happened. Let’s move on to the next thing. Let’s attack with that sinker.’”

We hoped you liked reading Red Sox First Rounder Tanner Houck on Killing Worms by David Laurila!

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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 February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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I was full of shit too right after I got out of college.