The Brewers right-hander has thrown 20 innings across those outings. Results in a small sample like that don’t mean much. However, a closer look at Houser’s pitches and his approach on the mound reveals that he has evolved as a pitcher from past seasons.
Houser’s broader profile remains the same. His bread and butter is inducing ground balls, and he’s not one to overpower hitters. What has changed is the shape of Houser’s arsenal and how he utilizes it.
Upon becoming a full-time starter in 2020, Houser settled on the pitch mix that he stuck with for the next three seasons. He relied heavily on his sinker, incorporated more four-seamers and changeups against left-handed hitters, and rounded out his mix with his curveball and slider.
This approach reached its apex in 2021. Houser threw his sinker a whopping 54% of the time, including 68% of the time to right-handed hitters.
It was a questionable strategy from the start for multiple reasons. While Houser’s sinker is by far his best pitch, turning more often to a contact-oriented offering lowered his strikeout rate. It also forced him to turn to his slider (another pitch with primarily lateral movement) as his leading breaking ball, even though his curveball graded out as his best secondary at the time. Becoming a heavy sinkerballer also left Houser vulnerable to dramatic platoon splits.
The results were mixed. Houser had a career year in 2021 (3.22 ERA, 4.33 FIP), but that showing was sandwiched between rough performances in 2020 (5.30 ERA, 4.82 FIP) and 2022 (4.73 ERA, 4.21 FIP).
This year, Houser has changed things up in a big way. His sinker usage is down to 37%, his lowest rate since 2019. He’s throwing his four-seamer 31% of the time.
For the first time since 2019, Houser is using his four-seamer as his primary fastball against left-handed hitters. Not only that, but he’s also throwing it at twice the rate of his sinker in such matchups.
Attacking left-handers primarily up-and-in with four-seamers has helped Houser mitigate the platoon splits that have plagued him in the past. Lefties are hitting .278/.290/.333 against him this year after tagging him for a .289/.372/.450 line for his career.
Houser has also ramped up his four-seam usage against right-handers in his last two starts. Against the Rays, he threw it 24% of the time to right-handers. Against the Astros, he threw it 31% of the time in such matchups.
The return to a more balanced mix of fastballs serves Houser well. While his four-seam fastball does not have much ride, it has always induced swings and misses at a much higher rate than his sinker. He produced five whiffs with four-seamers against the Astros on Wednesday. Featuring more high four-seamers forces opponents to protect more areas of the strike zone and limits their ability to hunt Houser’s sinker at the bottom of the zone.
A better approach is not the only encouraging sign Houser has shown in the early going. The quality of his stuff has improved as well, starting with his signature sinker.
After routinely posting hefty ground ball rates, Houser’s grounder rate fell to 47% last season. This was partially due to a flatter sinker. On average, Houser’s sinker dropped about an inch less than it did in past seasons. One inch might not seem like much, but for a weak contact specialist, it can easily be the difference between a rollover and solid contact.
In addition to restoring that lost sink this year, Houser has added another inch of run to his sinker. In other words, it’s moving more than it ever has before.
The improved sinker bodes well for Houser’s ability to induce weak contact. His ground ball rate has improved to 55% this year.
Houser’s sinker isn’t his only pitch with a better shape this year. He has made gains across the board, adding more lateral movement to his slider and curveball and more drop to his changeup.
While Houser is unlikely to continue shutting out some of the best lineups in baseball, enhanced stuff and a better pitch mix position him to miss more barrels and potentially pick up more strikeouts than he did last season. If his adjustments stick, he may be in for some of the best production of his career.