Tanner Houck is a 6'5", 215 lb RHP and is the current Friday night starter for the University of Missouri (which is College parlance for "he's the Ace of the staff"). His size gives him a workhorse frame and his control and command has drawn an awful lot of comparisons to current Phillies starter Aaron Nola. The Phillies are likely to take a Pitcher this year, just due to the volume of College Pitchers in this draft and Houck, to me checks a lot of boxes for the Phillies, plus there is some ceiling beyond his current status, just because of his size.
I will mention that I'm writing this preview based mostly off of Houck's previous 2 years. Houck is off to a very rough start this year. I'm not sure if it's an injury, pressure of high draft expectations, bad luck or what. I have been unable to see one of his starts, so I don't have any visual reference for anything that might be off, but his stat line is dramatically different after 2 starts this year. Mizzou has simply written it off to him sitting out Fall practice after Pitching for Team USA last year, and Houck needing a few weeks to get his feel back after a long layoff. As I wrap up the week -plus writing this piece I should also note he looked like last year's Tanner Houck in a rather dominant start last Friday
So, first we'll discuss Houcks pitch mix and control/command, then we'll look at mechanics. I'm pretty excited about Houck's stuff and, frankly, rather amazed he has so much control with so much movement. He throws a Fastball with fantastic 2-seamer movement down and to the arm side. He can throw it accurately to both sides of the plate and it's a really good weapon. He throws it up to 96 mph, so it would be rated as a Plus pitch (with more ceiling as Houck can probably add good weight still). Houck's best pitch might be his Slider which has tight glove side break. It is a true swing and miss pitch, though it does need to improve a little in consistency of the break and he does occasionally lose the pitch a bit, as he has some Wild Pitches mostly from the Slider. Still, it has enough movement that it's another surprise he can consistently hit his mark with it. His third pitch is his Changeup, which has some movement, but weaker than the other two. He can hit his marks with it, but it's no more than an average pitch at present. I have seen scouting reports state it has some ceiling to get to Above-average and play up to Plus because of his control and the quality of his other two pitches. In Scouting terms, you're looking at a guy with a likely floor of #3 Starter, but a ceiling of genuine #1 Starter if his Slider progresses to Plus and his command refines to a 70 grade, which both look like pretty good bets.
I want to be careful not to overstate his control/command presently. He's not as good as Nola was in this area in College (though he's not terribly far off) and he gets away with it better in College than he may in pro ball, as he sequences well and gets some swings and misses outside the zone due to his movement. There's potential for improvement to get to #1 Starter, but even with no change in this area, he's probably a #3 starter who flashes dominance. He is good at placing his fastball for strikes when needed though, as he barely crosses the double digit mark in walks annually despite over 100 innings pitched.
We'll get to video shortly, but I'll discuss broadly Houck's mechanics. Houck is, as said above, 6'5". That should result in great downward plane on his pitches, but Houck negates some of his height in his delivery mechanics. He has a bit of a drop and drive delivery with a low 3/4 arm slot. His control is advanced enough that I think you'd have to be a verifiable crazy person to want to tweak that to get better plane. I think his stuff is good enough to ignore this flaw, though I'm curious if it may be part of what has kept his K rate a little lower than his stuff would seem to suggest (not that a roughly 9 K/9 IP is bad).
Our first video of Houck is courtesy of Prospect Pipeline. In the video you see two innings of work for USA Baseball from last summer. You can see his 3/4, almost sidearm slot. He has a bit of the dreaded "inverted W" (known as the letter M to every human on the planet, except people who talk Pitcher mechanics) and you see that in a few scouting reports get some mentions. His pitches in this game are predominantly Fastball/Slider and other than an errant Fastball in warmups, he looks to mostly hit pretty close to his marks. Though his misses, tend to be arm side with his Fastball, so he's going to plunk some RHB's here and there.
Here's a silent movie of Houck courtesy of Andrew Krause. From roughly this time last year. One of my pet peeves is Pitchers landing foot pointing askew of Home Plate. I've always felt like the ball is going where your foot points and if your foot is pointing towards the First Base dugout you're more likely to be wild to that side. Houck's foot in every single frame of video I've watched of him always points dead straight at the Catcher. That helps his control. His release point sometimes takes mini-vacations, leading to those Fastballs running too far to his arm side and sometimes turning his Slider a bit slurvy, but lots of College Pitchers have those issues. The majority of his mechanics are pretty clean. It's unfortunate he drops so low and throws from such a low slot as it negates his height, but I like the stuff and skill enough to overlook that.
Overall, I think Houck is one of the safest prospects in this Draft. There's enough ceiling there to see a potential #1 Starter, but, at worst, I think you can get a solid #3 who will move pretty quickly. I'd expect him to be on a timeline similar to Nola's, with only 1 full season in the Minors. Of course, he's not the only high upside College arm in this class (which seems riddled with them) and the Phillies may decide that they have enough guys they really like (Nola, Vinny, Eick, Eflin, Thompson, Sixto, Kilome, etc.) that they're willing to gamble a bit on a slightly riskier, slightly higher ceiling option. More on those options in other pieces.