The Indians have now officially announced that T.J. House will be making the start tonight in Baltimore, the first of his Major League career. Another starter was needed of course due to the 13 inning marathon in Cleveland, which saw starter Josh Tomlin entering and throwing three innings. We “saw” House briefly last year when he was called up (though never pitched), and he made his MLB debut here recently when added to the pen for some depth. But who is House? How good is he? How does he project at the major league level?
T.J. House was drafted by the Indians in the 16th round of the 2008 draft. He was one of the better prep arms in the draft (especially among the lefties). However, he had a very strong commitment to Tulane, which caused him to drop. A coaching change may have actually helped the Tribe land him as they went way over slot and gave him $750,000 to sign. And don’t let the draft round fool you, he was a legit pitching prospect coming out of Mississippi. Remember back then there was no limit on draft spending so top prospects (especially high school kids) would drop a lot when deemed “unsignable” as House was. Signed late though and didn’t make his real debut until the 2009 season. Was pushed a bit by going straight to Low-A Lake County out of high school (lots of kids would have gone to extended spring training and opened at Mahoning Valley). Pitched very well making 26 starts, throwing 134.1 innings, K-rate over 7, walk rate in the low 3’s, ERA of 3.15 and FIP of 3.79. Not a bad debut at all for a kid 19-year old kid. Was bumped up to Kinston in 2010 and pitched very similarly. 26 more starts, 135.2 innings, and K-rate over 7 again. ERA and FIP did jump some but nothing bad (3.91 ERA, 4.02 FIP). Walk rate was 4 per nine though. House heading into that season was a Fastball, Slider, and Change-up guy. He added a Curveball to his repertoire though at the end of 2010. He repeated a level in 2011 and really struggled. ERA rose to over 5, FIP was up near 5, K-rate bottomed out to barely above 6 and walk rate was over 4.5. He did still manage to throw 130 innings (in 24 starts). Was the control issue due to his first full season utilizing the curve? Maybe. Or maybe it was just a bad season (lots of prospects have them). Hard to say exactly, but one thing is for certain, his prospect stock took a major hit after that 2011 season. He was still liked but the talk of him as a middle of the rotation starter pretty much stopped and the dreaded term “bullpen arm” started to be used a lot.
However, he come back the next year and ended up throwing a total of 176 innings across 3 levels (124.1 innings at the AA level) while seeing his K-rate bounce back some and his control improving greatly (walk rate around 3). ERA dropped back down under 4 again (3.56) and FIP was very solid as well. He opened eyes but still only on the fringe prospect radar. Showed enough though that the Tribe feared losing him in the Rule 5 draft and rostered him. In 2013, he started again in AA but after four dominate starts was bumped up (10.88 K-rate, 3.22 ERA, 1.89 FIP). Pitched well in Columbus too, even getting a token call-up to the big leagues (though never entered the game). Finished the year at Columbus with 141.2 innings pitched in 24 starts (overall 164 innings in 28 starts). ERA may not have opened eyes (4.32) but a 3.89 FIP was solid (was over a run better than teammate Trevor Bauer). K-rate was still only at 7 per nine, but the walk rate was back down under 3.5. Nothing “wow” about his performance but outpitching a top 50 prospect in baseball and just being consistent with the innings (134, 135, 130, 176, 164)…opened a lot of eyes that this guy is definitely starting material with the bullpen a worst case fallback option. He then opened 2014 as a long-shot for the rotation with tons of names in front of him (Carrasco, Salazar, Bauer, Tomlin, etc). Still he went about his business at Columbus. To date he’s made 7 starts, gone 41.1 innings, with a 7.4 K-rate, a great 2.4 BB/9, a low 2.40 ERA and very good 2.89 FIP (which was nearly a full run better than Bauer’s FIP). Also sprinkled in one solid relief appearance in the bigs and there you have House to date. No way around it, House has been very good in 2014, yet it seems like there were some clamoring for Travis Banwart to get the call instead of House. Banwart hasn’t been bad but he was averaging fewer innings per start than House, had a worse K-rate, worse BB-rate, worse ERA, worse FIP (by over a run and a half).
So how does he projectat the big league level? As mentioned above House throws a Fastball, Slider, Curve, and Change. Fastball may seem unspectacular but he can run it up to 95 mph. Still it’s more a low-90s pitch but can generate groundballs with it. Slider can be a plus pitch for him sitting in the mid-80s. Curve was added more to give hitters a different eye-level on pitches but can be effective at times. The Change is what will make or break him. At times it flashes as plus but still inconsistent. If he can harness that pitch he could have a long career in a big league rotation. Of course those are famous last words as a change/legit 3rd pitch is the “make or break” for just about every young starting pitching prospect it seems. Still his ceiling is that of a mid-rotation starter. Realistically he may be more a back-of-the-rotation guy but even if that’s all he is, could make a nice career for himself back there.
One very important aspect of House that I’ve (purposely) left out to this point is something that is actually quite obvious: he pitches Left-Handed. The Indians rotation prior to House coming up had no left-handers. While this may not seem like a big deal but consider this: Only one team in the history of Major League Baseball has won the World Series without having a left-handed starting pitcher at some point during the season (the 1984 Detroit Tigers). In fact, since the advent of the World Series in 1903 only seven teams have even made the postseason without ever starting a left-handed pitcher at some point during the regular season (credit to Jim Berdysz for this info). Sure it may seem like a dumb little tidbit of information. Does not having a lefty really mean your odds of making the playoffs are less than 2%? No, I don’t truly believe that. However, having a left-handed starter in there does have its benefits as it can help break up lineups and gives teams a different look. We all know how much the Tribe has struggled versus lefties in recent years and we’re seeing it again this year (for the most part) and having a guy like Kazmir last year was a big boost to the club. Of course, House being a lefty has also prompted many to call him nothing more than a David Huff/Jeremy Sowers/ Scott Lewis type of pitcher. Could he end up like that? Absolutely, but just because we’ve seen lefties struggle doesn’t mean every lefty will struggle. And why does one even need to even compare him to other lefties. Could easily compare him to Corey Kluber, a guy who was never a top 10 spec in Tribe system (the three lefties mentioned above all were). He too had some good secondary numbers in the minors and is proving doubters wrong after being labeled a “back-of-the-rotation/bullpen guy” by many scouts and fans. House has more than earned this call-up and deserves the benefit of the doubt at this point.
Bottom line, I’m very excited to see House start tonight. He may not have the stuff of a Trevor Bauer, but he’s a very smart pitcher that can more than succeed in a big league rotation. With McAllister on the DL and Salazar struggling in AAA, we may be seeing more than just a spot start today by House as well. Big opportunity for him to show Tito and the Indians what he’s capable of. Already has a big fan in this writer, and I’m confident he’ll be getting more over the next few weeks.