Red Sox top draft pick Tanner Houck has the makeup, motivation to be great
Note: This story originally appeared on WEEI's website. The site has been reworked and older stories were deleted, and it's been reposted here in its entirety.
Tanner Houck has spent his entire life overcoming obstacles.
He recalls when he first discovered his passion for baseball at three years old. His parents, Darrin and Jennifer, would toss him tennis balls in the family’s front yard in Collinsville, Illinois, but young Tanner still had much to learn.
“I couldn’t catch them at the time so they would just keep pelting me in the face, which is why I got the catcher’s mask,” Houck said with a laugh. “Thank goodness for that.”
Fast forward 18 years, and 21-year-old Tanner is set to make his second professional start against 2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel. Just another obstacle.
Houck, the Red Sox’ 2017 first round pick, was stationed in Lowell, Massachusetts with the Single-A Spinners this summer when Keuchel returned to LeLacheur Park – the place where he too made his professional debut eight years earlier.
Keuchel, on rehab assignment in mid-July, bested Houck on the mound that night, but this is just the type of matchup he has always dreamed of.
“I wanna be that guy that you look to and every time you see him on the mound it’s like, ‘Alright, we got this in the bag,’” Houck said.
Houck came to Lowell after three seasons as the ace of SEC-powerhouse Missouri’s staff, though he almost went straight to the Show out of high school.
Then 17, Houck got drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 12th round of the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft. He got a tattoo three days later on his left wrist that read, “RD12/PK354/BLUEJAYS’14,” a not so subtle reminder that the baseball world felt there were 353 kids better than him.
After talking it through with his mother, Houck felt it was important to make the two-hour trek to Mizzou and spend a few years growing up and honing his craft. After all, he had never been away from the comfort of his suburban St. Louis-area home.
“I told myself that I wanna be a first-rounder,” Houck said. “I was gonna work my ass off until that time came and it paid off.”
With his tattoo serving as daily motivation, Houck racked up the accolades in Columbia, Missouri.
When the Red Sox called his name this June, the 6-foot-5 right hander became just the fourth Tigers pitcher in the common draft era to be selected in the first round. He ranks fourth all-time in school history with 292 strikeouts, and became the only Mizzou player to earn a spot on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team twice.
“Those were two summers that I wouldn’t trade for the world with those memories,” Houck said. “A lot of good players, first-rounders and guys that are playing professional baseball right now all were with that team. And just being able to pick their minds, and kind of see why they do things versus doing other things, and then learning from the coaching staff.
“They’re coaching the USA Collegiate Team for a reason because they’re some of the top coaches in college baseball,” Houck added.
One of those coaches is Mississippi State’s pitching coach Gary Henderson, who worked with Tanner during his first summer with the National Team.
Henderson has been coaching for nearly 30 years, and he says there’s no question Houck “gets it.” Though he acknowledged that a month with Team USA is a short window into a young pitcher’s development, he was impressed not only by Houck’s stuff on the mound, but by his makeup.
“You’re talking about a guy that’s really talented,” Henderson said. “So if you’re putting together those types of personal characteristics – honesty, attitude, character, work ethic –when you start putting that package together with, ‘Hey, this dude’s wired right.’ This guy’s got real, real skills; he’s got real feel and release. He’s got the ability to make the baseball do the things that he wants it to do. Those guys thrive.”
Henderson said that Houck was all about improving, and whether it was pulling coaches aside for extra bullpen time or engaging with the rest of the team’s star-studded roster, he put in the work.
Because of these attributes, it didn’t come as shocking that Houck threw four perfect innings in a combined no-hitter against Cuba on July 1 or led the team in both innings pitched and strikeouts.
Henderson was quick to note, too, that on a team with talented players like Ryan Hendrix, Daulton Jefferies, Logan Shore, Stephen Nogosek, Mike Shawaryn and A.J. Puk, Houck, the youngest of the group, stood out.
The following summer, it was much of the same on George Horton’s staff, where Houck had a 2.66 ERA in six starts and played an integral role in the team’s series-clinching victory over the Cubans.
Horton has been around the game for some time as well, having won a national championship with Cal State Fullerton in 2004, and thus his comparisons for Houck should not be taken lightly.
“Just very, very business-like,” Horton said, describing the burly righty. “Very tough, his demeanor reminded me a little bit in a positive way of Nolan Ryan. You know, just the way he’d take possession of the mound and his appearance on the mound and the way he walked.”
Ryan, who had a 27-year career in the majors and is baseball’s strikeout king, was known for his bulldog mentality, something that Horton noticed in Houck.
He recalled one game against Japan where Houck got his pitching hand spiked covering home plate, and though it was swollen and bleeding, Horton says there was not even a thought of him coming out of the game.
In terms of pure stuff, Horton likened Houck to 211-game-winner Kevin Brown.
“That’s who I would compare him to, real heavy sink,” Horton said. “He has that kinda tilt to his fastball and not only is it up there in velocity, but it’s a heavy ball and it has a lot of sink to it so it’s hard for hitters to elevate.”
Brown, who stands at 6-foot-4, has a similar frame to Houck’s. The lanky stature helps add velocity and torque to his pitches, and though Houck may need to refine his delivery, his fastball consistently sits in the upper 90s. His changeup has improved, and while the rest of his secondary pitches need work, he appears more than up to the task.
“I’m not at the point that I wanna be in my career so I gotta wake up and I still gotta push myself,” Houck said.
The drive to get better is palpable with Houck. Just ask Iggy Suarez, his manager in Lowell.
“His outings are more quality every time out,” Suarez said. “His bullpen sessions on the side after he’s done are getting better every time out. He’s getting better and better. Whether it’s something small or something big, the fact is that he’s moving upwards and moving forward. Taking steps forward and that’s huge. And he’s absorbing it very well. There’s a reason why he was our first pick.”
In the words of Coach Henderson, “Most of the time the guys that are great over time prove to be guys that are interested in being great,” and Houck certainly fits that description.
Being a highly-touted Mizzou prospect with a low arm slot, the comparisons to Max Scherzer are natural. When asked what pitchers he admires, though, Houck named childhood favorite Adam Wainwright, Chris Sale, and Keuchel.
“[Keuchel’s] one of those guys too that you don’t know if he’s upset on the mound or if he’s on top of the mountain, he just goes,” Houck said.
Houck, a thoughtful kid, explained that he tries to keep an even-keeled demeanor on the mound in part because he wants to keep hitters guessing.
As with most young players, Houck’s future is uncertain. Mike Rikard, Boston’s vice president of amateur scouting, said after the draft, “We think he has a chance to be a very good starting pitcher for the Red Sox.” Some believe his stuff, highlighted by the high velocity fastball, makes him better suited for the bullpen.
At his pre-draft interview, though, Houck made it clear that he intends to be an ace.
“I told them, ‘You’re gonna look back in ten years and you’re gonna say, ‘We got the best player in that draft.’ Because I’m gonna be the guy that you can hand the ball off to Game 7 of the World Series and you have all the confidence in the world with that guy,’” Houck said.
And if there are doubters and naysayers in his way, Houck doesn’t mind. He’ll shake them off like he did those tennis balls at three years old.
LeLacheur Park, home of the Lowell Spinners, pregame before Houck's start. He pitched two innings and struck out four.