The advice might have seemed odd for some, but Tanner Houck understood.
“Don’t get in a bench-press competition with Noah Syndergaard.”
“I 100 percent concede from the beginning,” the Red Sox pitcher said with a chuckle. “I won't even attempt.”
This is Houck’s new world. Watching the Mets’ star pitcher throw shirtless — countering the muscles of the man they call “Thor” with the best flexibility in South Florida — while mingling in among Cy Young Award winners Corey Kluber, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
Welcome to the next step for the pitcher who offered the Red Sox so much hope with three unworldly starts at the conclusion of an otherwise very forgettable 2020 season.
“Some big-name guys and that's ultimately why I wanted to come down here,” Houck explained on the Bradfo Sho podcast. “After being in the big-league camp this past year and just being around guys like Sale and Eovaldi and just being able to pick their brain on a day-to-day basis, I was like, 'I need this year-round.' You're only going to learn from people like that who have been in some elite situations and that's what I wanted to surround myself with to be the best I can.”
“Here” is Cressey Sports Performance-Florida in Jupiter, the training facility used by some of the most accomplished baseball players on the planet. Now, Houck is spending his days among of them.
“He was a fun surprise,” said Brian Kaplan, vice-president and co-founder of the South Florida center (joining New England native and training icon Eric Cressey), also serving as the facility’s pitching coordinator. “Usually we have a pretty good idea what big leaguer we're going to have each year. We have the same minor league group of guys come back year after year and if we do add somebody it's usually through word of mouth from somebody we've already worked with. But he just randomly emailed in one day and was like, 'Hey, I'm heading down and I would like to train with you guys this offseason.' So seeing his name come across was exciting because it wasn't something expected.
“He's in there six days a week and he has fit in really well with the group. He's young. You don't realize it. We have an interesting culture. We have a lot of veteran guys and we have a lot of up-and-coming prospects and he definitely converges more to the younger guys.”
That run of 17 innings during which he gave up just one earned run was nice. But the Red Sox rookie knew he needed to peel back his next layer. This was the way to do it.
Four days a week working on his body. Two more focusing on mobility and balance. And all the while integrating the throwing side of things with Kaplan. What worked? What didn’t? Where can he go from here?
And, of course, those conversations with some Cy Young-Award winners.
“I think that's the interesting part,” Kaplan said. “The only other time of year where you see veteran and young guys is in spring training and in spring training it is certainly casual but there is a goal in mind where you're getting ready for the season and you're trying to get ready to compete. The interesting part of this time of year is a lot of those veteran guys are more open and they're a little more laid back and more willing to sit down and have a conversation about how he attacks hitters or how works on pitches or throwing programs or general experiences with managers. It's a really unique atmosphere because I don't think you get that any other time in the year. A lot of the young guys will sit in the warm-up area and just pick up a conversation with a guy and start asking him question and lead to an entire conversation for the workout. It's kind of fun to see, especially for the younger guys because I think it's such a valuable learning experience. They are there for the training and the throwing. But it's definitely an added bonus they don't get anywhere else.”
Added Houck, “I grew up watching a lot of those guys on TV and just seeing their careers develop and now getting to train with them and getting to pick their brain is mind-blowing. I can't even put it into words because these are guys I've looked up to for years now. Getting to compete against them on a day-to-day basis, whether it's in the season coming up or whether it's in the weight room, it's truly unfathomable for me. But it's exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be around the best and that's what I feel like I needed to do. You're talking about some Cy Young winners and World Series winners and that's the ultimate end-goal for me. Whatever knowledge I can get, I'm an open book.”
But the advice won’t always be one-size-fits-all stuff. Houck is too unique for that, a reality the staff has already discovered during the 24-year-old’s stay.
Sydergaard might be able to beat the Sox pitcher in most feats of strength, but nobody at Cressey Performance is likely be show more flexibility that Houck. ("I might be double-joined," he surmised.) It’s a trait that has helped the righty offer an interesting presentation with every wind-up and follow-through.
“That was the big part, just teaching him about his body,” Kaplan said. “That's one of the biggest things we do, is just educating the athlete about who they are. We sat down and talked about that his delivery is unique. His arm action is pretty long. He's cross-body. Everybody says he's a right-handed Chris Sale. I heard that a little bit. I explained to him, 'Your delivery is what it is because your body is what it is. Your body is very loose. And your body is very limber and mobile. While that can be a benefit of getting your body into some unique positions and be deceptive and kind of create some challenging looks for hitters, this is where it can also be challenging from a durability standpoint and a health standpoint and these are the things we have to do this offseason to make sure we understand what that involves.' Him understanding mobility and stability and why he needs to focus on controlling and owning positions and stuff he can take with him in-season and make him a more educated and arm and more durable arm.”
There will be plenty of time to soak in his new surroundings and come out with the desired results. The Jupiter apartment is rented all the way up until the beginning of spring training, at which point he’ll drive across the state for the next chapter.
For the pitcher who has had so many twists and turns since being taken in the first-round of the 2017 MLB Draft, a straight-as-an-arrow plan is finally in place. The goal? To carry more confidence than ever when finally making that trek across Alligator Alley three months from now.
“Getting to the 2021 season, I'm so excited for,” he said. “I have only been here for about month now I'm but I'm already inching to get back to Fort Myers and get going in terms of spring training. This offseason I know I have to put in a lot of work and go out for 2021 spring training fight for a spot. I'm ready for whatever comes.
“I went through a stage where I questioned myself a lot. I'm not afraid to admit. I was going through some struggles and it was tough. When you're getting kicked while you're down constantly it's hard to find a lot of positives but it just boiled down to, 'OK, I can do this.' I had to just wake up and continue to tell myself, 'I've got to do this. Push through this. Get through it. It will be fine.' To see now, alright, I did make it. Yeah, it's kind of a sigh of relief. Phew. I went through it. I went through the trenches and came out of the other side ready to go and ultimately a better baseball player but also a better person for it. Next time I'm going through a struggle I can be like, 'I know there is going to be light at the end of the tunnel, OK, let's do this. We'll keep working and things will get better.' You just have to put your nose to the ground sometimes and understand OK, I may be getting my teeth kicked in but that little bit of light I can see it. Yeah, I definitely have that sigh of relief, like, 'Yeah. Phew.' I got the initial part, the start of the race, out of the way and now I just have to go out there an hang with them and continue to compete.”