Three days after the 2014 baseball draft, Missouri sophomore pitcher Tanner Houck got a tattoo — “RD12/PK354/BLUEJAYS’14” — on the inside of his left wrist.
After his senior season at Collinsville (Ill.) High in suburban St. Louis, Houck was a 12th-round pick by the Toronto Blue Jays, No. 354 overall. He hadn’t decided yet if he’d sign a pro contract or join Tigers coach Tim Jamieson’s staff in Columbia, but he knew that he never wanted to forget.
“No matter what it did, I wanted it to be motivation, whether I signed or went to college,” Houck said. “I wanted it to be motivation, because I was drafted 354th. That means they thought 353 people were better than me in that year.”
Houck isn’t eligible for Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft again until 2017, but there’s almost no chance he slides that far next time. Some draftniks have tabbed Houck as the No. 1 prospect for 2017 after Houck’s stock soared during his debut season at Missouri.
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He went 8-5 with a 3.49 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 100 2/3 innings as a freshman, then took a star turn as the top starter last summer for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Houck posted a 2.16 ERA and led Team USA with 14 strikeouts and 16 2/3 innings, including four perfect innings July 1 in a combined no-hitter against Cuba.
Houck already has accepted an invitation to pitch for the Collegiate National Team this summer, becoming the first player in Mizzou history to earn a spot twice. Perhaps next June, Houck also will get another tattoo, one that reads “RD1/PK1.”
“That would be a great addition on my right wrist, but it’s really not up to me,” he said. “I’ve just got to continue to work hard on and off the field, but it’s a dream for everyone. Everyone wants to see their name up there … but I’ve got to continue to prove to myself that I can be that No. 1 pick or whatever.”
So far, so good this spring for Houck, who is 4-2 with a 2.33 ERA for Mizzou. He’s struck out 62 with only 13 walks in 58 innings and opponents are hitting .181 against him.
“It’s so fun to play behind him just because of how many strikes he throws …” junior shortstop Ryan Howard said. “I really enjoy playing defense behind him, because he works so fast and he works down. He gets groundballs and just does all the little things right.”
Houck’s fastball sits in the mid-90s complemented by a wipeout slider and an improving changeup.
“His stuff is special,” Jamieson said. “His arm angle and some of the movement of his pitches is different. He’s low, three-quarter with his delivery, but his command and his demeanor are plus-plus. Now what he’s got to do is be consistent, be dominant every time out. That’s what the best guys do.”
Houck wasn’t sharp early in the season, but he’s recorded two shutouts — at Arkansas and against Auburn — in his last three appearances.
“We found something a little different from last year in my delivery,” he said. “I was too rotational with my upper and lower half, which caused me to come out and around the ball. That’s the reason my fastball was flattening out and I was losing my command. We fixed that right away and I’ve kind of got myself back on track.”
The numbers say Houck was still pretty good, even if he wasn’t at his best.
Besides, some of that is to be expected with the offseason hype he received.
“Scouting and radar guns and the draft all kind of go together,” Jamieson said. “Tanner was a little bit too focused on velocity, but now he’s back to doing what he does well. Ironically, his velocity has actually gone up since he’s done that.”