Zac Houston is the next big bullpen weapon in the Tigers' system

Zac Houston wasn't exactly having a bad first half with the Detroit Tigers' Single A affiliate West Michigan Whitecaps. The big 22-year-old six-foot-five right-hander threw 26 2/3 innings out of the Whitecaps bullpen and was piling up the strikeouts like they were on sale, posting a 12.2 K/9 over that stretch. His FIP sat at a very pretty 2.14 -- hardly a sign of a pitcher who's struggling.

But Houston wants to ramp it up. One of his stated goals for next season is to "start off next year a lot smoother than I started this one -- I don't want to have to work as hard in the first half to get my mechanics down."

So what does it look like when an already dependable reliever with good numbers doubles down and feels like his mechanics are finally working?

In the second half of the season, his FIP has dropped to 1.21, his strikeouts have jumped to two batters per inning (a rate of 18.3 K/9), and his strike-throwing rate now sits at 67 percent, up from 63 percent in the first half.

"I'd struggled a little bit with my command early in the season, I didn't really have the command I wanted," he says, and so one of the first steps he took was backing off a bit on his velocity. He had been living in the range of 95-96 MPH in August of last season, occasionally touching 97 and even 98, so it was a bit of surprise to find that his fastball was regularly registering in the 92-94 range in 2017.

"I just needed to dial it back, I needed to start locating the ball better," says Houston, and now that the results are coming along (did I mention that he cut his walk rate in half after the All Star break?) he's ready to start adding a little more heat: "Lately I've been able to raise the velocity back up a little bit -- not exactly where I want to be, but definitely getting there -- but throwing strikes and commanding the zone is a bigger priority than throwing as hard as I can."

Along with that fastball -- which, by the way, has enough late arm-side action that it ought to come with a NSFW warning -- Houston also features a breaking pitch that is a major weapon. With plenty of both horizontal and vertical movement, usually registering anywhere from 77-79 MPH, I would have sworn it was a curveball, but according to Houston, "I did away with the curveball since the second half -- I've just been throwing the four-seam a lot, and then started throwing a hard slider. Everything's hard right now. I'm just trying to beat hitters, so I wanted to just focus on one off-speed pitch instead of juggling two."

Slider or curve? You be the judge:

Let's split the difference and just call it a "slurve." Whatever you call it, he throws it with advanced command, and gets plenty of both called and swinging strikes with it.

But then again, that's what happens when you're a pitcher who is entirely focused on mastering the art of good command: "The strikeouts are great and everything -- it makes my job a lot easier when they miss -- but being able to locate in the zone right now, that's the biggest thing for me."

The Whitecaps are making the most out of this electric arm, too. Of the 20 games Houston has pitched in during the 2017 season, only four of those have been limited to one inning. Eleven of those outings have been at least two-inning games, and in three of those games he pitched a full three innings out of the bullpen.

Houston doesn't know precisely why he sees so many multi-inning games -- he suggests he may be prepping for a long-relief role, or perhaps it's simply a matter of the Whitecaps getting as many innings out of him as they can -- but in the end, he's not concerned with the details. He just wants to pitch, wants to get better, and wants to make the jump to Advanced A by the end of the season.

(He's not exactly someone who has small goals, either. When I asked him which MLB hitter he'd love to face someday and try to strike out, he responded without hesitation, "A healthy Mike Trout, or Bryce Harper -- one of those two.")

But he calls this development process a learning curve, and looking back at the transition between his 2016 and 2017 season, it's something he intends to master: "I've never done anything like this -- played for that long of a time, then taken that much time off, and then tried to get right back into things -- I'll definitely be more prepared next season."

His improved performance between the first and second half of this season would suggest he's more than capable of rising to the challenge.
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