Two relievers earn early promotions to West Michigan

Lynn Henning, The Detroit News

An audience sitting in on Zac Houston’s short-inning cameos can prepare for the following.

A semi-regular base on balls. And a very regular strikeout.

Houston specializes in the latter, evident in the 18 games in which he has worked at Single A stops Connecticut and West Michigan since the Tigers snagged him in the 11th round of June’s draft.

Houston, who pitched at Mississippi State ahead of the Tigers signing him for $190,000, has struck out 43 batters in 26.2 innings. The problem is that opposing batters this summer have gotten walks (14) more easily than they’ve managed hits (11) against a 21-year-old right-hander who is 6-foot-5, 250 pounds.

“He’s a big-frame guy with a big, strong body,” said Andrew Graham, the West Michigan manager who inherited from this year’s draft a pair of hard-dealing right-handers in Houston and fifth-round pick Mark Ecker of Texas A&M.

“He’s got some deception in his wind-up and his delivery. He’ll hit 92 to 96, with some movement on his fastball. He’s got a slider and a curveball with the curveball having some depth, and the slider a bit flat at times.

“There are certain times he turns up the command, and sometimes it’s erratic. But he makes it work.”

If there is a defining trait to Houston’s style, it’s aggression. Mike Rabelo, the manager at Single A Connecticut, raved about Houston’s bring-it-on approach when Houston pitched at the Tigers’ low-Single A stop ahead of a July promotion to the Whitecaps.

Graham mentions the same tendency when he talks about a prospect whose hometown is Slidell, La.

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“The majority of times since he’s been with us, he goes right after the hitter,” Graham said. “Sometimes, his command isn’t there, but he he’s still able to make it all work. It’s that deception, with velocity, that keeps hitters off-balance.”

Houston was a part-time starter who mostly worked relief stints for the Bulldogs. In 18 games this spring, six of them starts, he had a 1.63 ERA and a .201 opponent batting average, with 29 hits allowed in 38.2 innings. He struck out 42 and walked 19, which is in the neighborhood of his ratios since he signed with Detroit.

The profile hasn’t changed greatly.

Nor has it in the case of another right-hander, Ecker, who is a pure reliever and who will be watched closely in 2017 as he potentially moves, rapidly, up the farm chain.

In six games with the Whitecaps, Ecker has been on roughly the same pace displayed at Connecticut. His combined numbers, spanning 17 games: 2-0 record, 0.37 ERA, 0.58 WHIP, with enemy batters hitting .133.

Not surprisingly, Rabelo was an Ecker fan at Connecticut for the same reasons Graham’s pleased any time Ecker arrives for a late-inning shift.

“Very composed, shows he’s not scared, and there’s no nervousness,” Graham said. “He’s 92 to 96, free and easy, with a good change and a good slider.

“If you’re looking at them as go-to guys,” he said, speaking of Ecker as well as Houston, “I can tell you they’re both very reliable.”