The somewhat bizarre evolution of Tanner Houck


It was only fitting Tanner Houck’s meeting the media Sunday was dominated by talk of one single pitch.

The path to his big-league debut Tuesday night, after all, has been dominated with talk of the great white whale, that one offering which will put the whole package together.

Currently, it is a split-fingered fastball.

"I definitely feel a lot more confident with lefties. I’ve definitely added a new weapon with the splitter,” Houck said. "I banged my changeup about two months ago. I was kind of on the fence with both of them for a while there throwing the changeup and the split. One day they were like, 'Here are the numbers, and your split plays way better to righties and lefties.'

"It just kind of opened up a new avenue and focused my mind completely along with continuing with developing the glove-side along with the four-seam fastball, and continuing to throw [the] two-seam and slider has been a big thing getting out lefties."

Houck's evolution is the ultimate reminder when it comes to developing baseball players. Even when it comes to first-rounders, what you see isn't ultimately usually what you're going to get.

He was taken 24th overall in the 2017 MLB Draft in large part because the Red Sox believed he was a perfect candidate to be something he wasn't. Houck was the clay, and the Red Sox were thrilled with the idea of molding him.

"One of the things we liked about Tanner in the draft is that we thought he was a top of the first-round pitcher and because of the style he was throwing he wasn't pitching up to his potential," former assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister told during 2018 spring training. "Literally, the pitches he was throwing was holding him back a little bit. We saw a power guy with a very flexible, loose, springy body that was capable of doing things that a lot of guys aren't capable of. We were really interested to see what he would look like as a power pitcher instead of a sinkerballer. He always had tremendous control, never walking anybody.

"He's been amazing because you don't usually have a first-rounder where you almost take him back to the drawing board immediately. But it was just an opportunity because he has such an aptitude for pitching, physically he's very talented, and he was very open to maximizing his performance. All of those ingredients led us to see him as a four-seam, power curveball, power changeup, cutter/slider guy who has a chance to be a long-term starter and not a reliever."

About that curveball ...

For a while that was the pitch which served as Houck's flavor of the month(s), using it to strikeout Mookie Betts in a backfield scrimmage. (That punch out came immediately after he got J.D. Martinez on a high-90's fastball.)

It was an offering that represented a familiar theme: Houck needed at least one more pitch than what he was delivering. On the day of those strikeouts on Field 5 at Fenway South, he was excited about the possibilities represented by the pitch.

"It's definitely come a long way," he told at the time. "I've been throwing it just over two months now. The best line I was always told was that it takes three years to develop an elite pitch. The first year you kind of learn how to throw it. The second year you learn how to control it. The third year you really learn how to master it and do whatever you want with it. I'm just on the beginning trails with it, but I'm super-excited with how it's come along."

Now? Same message, different pitch(es).

“I said I had a changeup but I think I threw it maybe 20 times all throughout three years of college," Houck said Sunday. "I was definitely a two-pitch pitcher. The first thing (the Red Sox) said whenever I came in was, ‘All right, if you want to be a starter in the big leagues, you have to develop a third pitch."

Where Houck has landed is in a confident place. He has the type of fastball and slider that can get any big-league righty hitter out, and the split-finger seems to have evolved to the point of controlling lefties, as well.

It will be 1,211 days between when he threw his last college pitch for the University of Missouri and when he takes the mound at Marlins Park. Seems about right.

“Right now, I’ve just got to embrace it and kind of let all the emotions out,” Houck said. “I know Tuesday will be a little bit different feeling, the heart will probably be pounding a little bit different, maybe a few butterflies, but just knowing that it’s still the same game, it’s still 60 feet, 6 inches to home plate and I just got to execute my gameplan and if I do that, I’m really confident.”