Strikeout artist Zac Houston working to add splitter to his palette

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitching prospect Zac Houston registered 80 strikeouts in 55.1 innings pitched between Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo last year.

Lakeland, Fla. — You like your late-inning relievers to have the swagger of an assassin, right?

Big Zac Houston, all 6-foot-5, 260 pounds of him, was asked Friday about strikeouts — if they are just another out or are they the mission against every hitter. For him, they are most definitely the mission.

“Yeah, pretty much,” he said. “If I feel like I am healthy and strong, and I’ve got command of my fastball, I feel there isn’t anybody I can’t strikeout. That’s just how I go through it.”

If you haven’t heard — and apparently some haven’t since he isn’t ranked among the Tigers’ top 30 prospects – Houston, 24, hasn’t faced too many minor-league hitters he didn’t strike out. In the three seasons since the Tigers drafted him in the 11th round out of Mississippi State in 2016, the right-hander has racked up 238 strikeouts in 154 innings.

In Low-A ball in 2016, he whiffed 49 in 29⅔ innings.

In Low-A and High-A in 2017, he dusted 91 in 58 innings. He then blew away the top prospects in the Arizona Fall League that year, striking out 18 in 11 scoreless innings.

Then last year, moving through Double-A to Triple-A, he fanned 80 in 55⅓ innings, including 55 in 38 innings, with 10 saves, at Toledo.

He has had a sub-1.0 WHIP in each of those seasons, as well, which is why the Tigers want to take a long look at him in big-league camp this spring.  

The last Tigers pitching prospect to dominate at every level like Houston was All-Star Joe Jimenez, who posted 241 strikeouts in 167 innings on his climb to the big leagues.

Unlike Jimenez, Houston’s heater isn’t ringing upper-90s on the radar gun. It just plays that way to a hitter. Houston’s fastball, which is his bread and butter, sits between 92-94 mph. But because of his length — arm span and stride — it gets on hitters quick.

“It’s deception,” Houston said. “I have a big frame. I have a weird, funky delivery and that helps me out a lot. My extension is really far. I kind of jump out (at the hitter) a little bit and the ball gets on the hitters a little quicker and makes them uncomfortable.”

There a whipping motion on his release, too, which pumps his spin rate and excites the analytics-based talent assessors.

“I have no idea what constitutes good spin rate,” Houston said with a laugh. “Glad I have it, but I don’t know. There’s not like a secret answer to tell you how to get more spin rate. I have no idea. But that may be another reason the ball gets on hitters quicker.”

The invitation to big-league camp was a surprise to Houston.

“I was hoping for it, of course,” he said. “But I am still pretty new to all of this. I didn’t really know how these things go. I thought I played well last year. I thought there was a chance I might get invited. When it happened, I was just very grateful, very blessed.”

By his own admission, Houston is far from a finished product. To this point, Houston has been a two-pitch pitcher. His lone secondary pitch has been a substandard curveball, which tends break too slow and loopy.

His command and control has been spotty, too, as his 70 walks and 21 hit batsmen in 143 innings will attest.

“There’s a lot of stuff I have to do,” he said. “I am not a perfect pitcher. I’ve got to locate better with my fastball. I’ve got to have a sharper breaking ball and I’ve got to develop a third pitch. I am working on all three of those things right now.”

The third pitch is intriguing. Houston is adding a power split-fingered fastball to his mix. And the early returns have been encouraging.

“It’ll be a little slower than my fastball and harder than my curveball,” he said. “I feel like if I have that third pitch, it’ll give me that much more of an edge. It’s a lot closer (to being game ready) than I thought it would be at this point.

“It’s not a pitch I’ve ever used before. So I am excited to try it out.”

The odds are against Houston breaking camp with the Tigers at the end of March. But he has put himself very much in the discussion as a viable bullpen option later in the season.

Twitter: @cmccosky