Tanner Houck Is Living Dangerously (And It’s Working)

Tanner Houck might be the boldest pitcher in baseball right now.

Tanner Houck has had an up-and-down MLB career to this point. He was untouchable but wild when he first came up. In the following years, he shored up his command but dealt with injuries and demotions to the bullpen. 2023 was his first real full year as a starter in the rotation with his manager’s full confidence, and it didn’t go to plan. The strikeouts didn’t return. By most of his underlying metrics, he seemed like a league-average pitcher. Unfortunately, despite his overall batted ball metrics seeming fine, his home run rate doubled and his ERA pushed up above 5.

That brings us to this season, in which Houck has made some changes to how he pitches. In a lot of ways, he’s the same guy he’s always been. It’s only now that he’s pitching fully to his strengths. Let’s dive into what he has to offer and how he’s been using it to succeed this year.


The Sweeper


So, there’s a brief technicality to get out of the way. This pitch is listed on Baseball Savant as a slider. When a breaking ball is getting 17.1” of horizontal break and -1.2” of iVB at 83.0 mph though, I’m calling it a sweeper. This pitch has an exceptional combination of break and power, theoretically giving it the ability to miss bats and cause unimpressive contact. It’s also a notable improvement over his previous breaking ball, which was already good. 

Last year’s edition was thrown 0.9 mph harder but had 5.9” less HB. That’s a trade I’m fine with Houck making. It doesn’t have quite as good of a spin mirror as it used to either, which hurts its deception, but with this much movement and his ability to locate it, I’m not sure it matters much.

So if it’s an improved pitch, why isn’t it getting the same rate of whiffs it used to?  It’s pretty simple actually. Houck came to the conclusion that this pitch is very difficult to hit well. If that’s the case, why not throw it in the zone constantly to force hitters to try? Having a decent chase rate wasn’t enough, he decided he was going to press the issue and make batters swing at it, knowing they would have trouble getting the bat on it.

He’s zoning this pitch an absurd 59.3% of the time. This compared to 39.1% last year. He leads the league in zoned sliders by a ridiculous margin, with 261 to Dylan Cease’s second-place 215. The zone rate is ninth among all breaking balls that have been thrown at least 100 times to this point. His aggression with this pitch is nearly unrivaled.

The whiff rate has dropped as it’s being swung at in what are technically more hittable locations. Pitches in the zone are less likely to be missed entirely by hitters, even if they’re good pitches. What it’s led to, however, is a dramatic increase in called strikes and forcing weak contact. This promotes efficient pitching and can help him get deeper into games, though potentially at the cost of his strikeout rate.


The Sinker


Houck’s other calling card pitch is his heavy sinker. Houck is tall even by pitcher standards at 6’5”, and he doesn’t get super deep into his legs with his delivery, which allows him to release the ball at a very low three-quarters arm slot while maintaining a fairly normal release point. Batters do not expect a sinker with 0.6” of iVB to come out of the hand from a 5.67’ release height. That’s the kind of vertical depth you expect from a sidearmer with a release point a foot lower or more. He throws his fastball with fairly normal velocity at 93.3 mph, but it gets an excellent 16.6” of arm-side run too. 

This pitch gives the groundskeepers headaches. Its sinking shape makes it very difficult for batters to get under it, and more often than not they just smack it into the dirt for an infielder to take care of. Houck has always run solid ground ball rates, but he’s kicked it up a notch this season. 56.1% of all batted balls he’s allowed this season have been grounders, good for the 93rd percentile. The sinker is a big part of why that is.

This pitch has also seen a change this season, though not as drastic as his sweeper’s. Houck modified his mechanics this year, he’s releasing the ball a few inches higher. Last year’s sinker had -1.0” of iVB and 15.5” of HB. Had his release point stayed the same, it would be a downgrade for this season.

However, his sinker has improved its VAA a bit due to the higher release, despite the “inferior” movement. This could be part of why he’s been getting more ground balls, beyond his improved pitch locations this season.


The Splitter


Houck’s splitter both suffers and benefits from the same things a lot of offspeed pitches thrown by pitchers with heavy sinkers do. In theory, it has a great shape at 88.1 mph with -2.9” of iVB and 13.6” of HB. It also should do well with deception as it spins on a similar axis as his sinker. The issues arise in how its movement relates to the rest of his arsenal. Just 3.7” of iVB separation and 5.2 mph of velocity separation make these pitches uncomfortably close to each other. And yet… it works. I’ve never fully understood it, but some pitchers have this uncanny ability to throw offspeed pitches that are remarkably similar to their fastball and they work anyway.

This pitch is also contributing to Houck’s excellent ground ball rate. He’s done a great job in locating it just off of the zone, and he’s been rewarded with a lot of unimpressive contact and ground balls. Like his sweeper, his aggression with this pitch has spiked this season.

A pitch that barely sniffed the zone last year, finding it just 25.3% of the time, is now clipping it 40.6% of the time. Ordinarily, I’d recoil at the idea of throwing an offspeed pitch in the zone more, as they tend to be easier for hitters to do damage with on contact. Houck’s functions like a secondary sinker though, inducing ground balls with ease.


The Cutter


Another pitch that Houck changed this season is his cutter. Last season it was pretty unique, having arm-side movement instead of glove-side like cutters normally do. Cutters’ observed movement direction tends to be counter-clockwise (for righties) from their actual spin direction.

Houck’s was normal in that sense, but its spin direction started too far down the axis to be able to turn over and move to the glove side even with that. It came in at 91.3 mph with 7.2” of iVB and 3.2” of arm-side movement. He mostly threw it high in the zone and it yielded acceptable results.

This year, he modified it so much I’d call it a new pitch entirely. Now at 87.3 mph, it’s a pure gyro breaker. 0.8” of iVB, and 0.5” of HB. With just 14% spin activity, this is a gravity ball. It’s theoretically exactly what he needs to help get opposite-handed hitters out. Being a primarily sinker-sweeper pitcher, Houck has struggled in platoon matchups in his MLB career as his two best pitches are both better against same-handed hitters. His splitter just hasn’t been enough to get them out. This gives him a potential out pitch to put them away when he needs a strikeout.


The Outlook


Houck’s newfound attacking style has been working wonders for him so far. Outside of one game where he had some bad batted ball luck, he’s been mowing through lineups. It’s a risky game to play, but his stuff is built to cause bad contact, so why bother dancing around the zone? Despite his new approach, his K% has actually gone up a bit this season. I’d assume this is due to being in more pitcher’s advantage counts as he’s decided throwing pitches out of the zone is a waste of time.

This isn’t a strategy that works for everyone. I would strongly advise a pitcher with a rising fastball to not do this. I semi-frequently suggest pitchers be LESS aggressive because they’re putting their pitches in bad spots and allowing too much contact. Walks are a better outcome than hard-hit balls in the air. Houck is an exception due to his unique arsenal. This is something he can get away with because he’s less likely to allow those hitter-friendly batted balls. It may limit his strikeout rate from being elite, but it should allow him to get through more innings.

As for the things he could be doing better/differently, I’m not sure he’s realized how good a weapon his new gyro cutter is. It’s so much more than a bridge pitch. While it does split the difference between his two main pitches beautifully and could lead to more chases and called strikes on those, this could be a serious whiff pitch in its own right.

A hard gyro cutter like this thrown below the zone is kryptonite to opposite-handed hitters. Catching the arm side of the plate to steal some strikes with it is fine, I guess, but there’s way more he could be doing with it. It’s a new pitch though, he’s probably still learning the feel for it and what he wants to do with it. All in due time, I hope.

Beyond that, I don’t have much to say. He could maybe dial back his zone-filling a bit in two-strike counts to try to get chases. With how many pitches he’s throwing in the zone, it seems inevitable that his chase rates will rise as hitters catch onto the fact that they have to swing more often against him or they’ll be left behind. 

I think Houck has finally figured out who he is on the mound. The way he’s pitching requires supreme confidence and bravado. You can’t challenge hitters the way he does without 100% assurance in your abilities. He conveys a simple, brutal message with every strike he throws. “I’m better than you, and I’ll prove it.”

Jack Foley

Jack is a contributor at Pitcher List who enjoys newfangled baseball numbers, coffee, and watching dogs walk by from the window where he works. He has spent far too much time on the nickname page of Baseball-Reference.

One response to “Tanner Houck Is Living Dangerously (And It’s Working)”

  1. Mario Mendoza says:

    I’ve seen several articles featuring Houck already, but this one is the BEST! Awesome work

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