What Can T.J. House Become?

Have the Indians found another diamond in the rough in the bearded southpaw?

The 2014 season was full of surprises for the Cleveland Indians, both good and bad. A Cy Young winner, a legit MVP candidate and a spectacular season of contention all the way up to the very last day were all awesome. Former All-Star second baseman and the highest paid players on the team underperforming and missing time, not so much. But amid all that, with the Klubomb dropped on the league, the resurgence of Carlos Carrasco, Michael Brantley finally becoming a young power hitter and Jose Ramirez showing out at shortstop the whole second half, there was that bearded beast. That lefty with the Fu-Manchu. One Glenn Anthony House making his presence known in the wigwam.


That’s T.J. House, if you hadn’t already figured it out. When Cleveland was desperate for a pitcher with Zach McAllister hurt and the bullpen worn down from Terry Francona’s frantic machinations, House stepped up time and again, working his way to 102 innings pitched, a 2.96 Skills Interactive ERA and a 3.35 actual ERA by the end of his rookie campaign. In what amounts to about half of a full-time starter’s workload he was worth 1.1 fWAR and was fully involved in the Indians’ drive toward the pennant. In the last two months of the season he started nine games, worked 52 innings and owned a 2.25 ERA. He was a revelation. A diamond in the rough. The kind of pitcher I always pine for and complain that other teams find and the Tribe doesn’t. Sure, Corey Kluber happened at just the same time, Carrasco was brilliant and Scott Kazmir just happened in 2013, but I’ll thank you not to point out my selective blindness.

Jul 10, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher T.J. House (58) delivers in the first inning against the New York Yankees at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

House was great though. A fine replacement for McAllister, actually outperforming him for the season and really any season he’s had in Cleveland. The lefty turned 25 on September 29th, so he got a late start, but there’s lots of hope to be seen there. He’s got a squirrelly delivery with that three-quarters, almost but not quite sidearm motion and that can play tricks on a lot of batters. He’s likely to be murder on lefties with that ball flying out of right field at them and breaking balls that run away. He’s just got to figure out a way to be more effective against the other guys. Right-handed hitters’ OPS against him was 200 points higher than lefties’ in 2014 and considering three quarters of Major League hitters or thereabouts are right-handed, that needs… an adjustment.

There’s lots to like about House though. He’s effective, he’s shown that ability, and being left-handed really helps the rotation out once they get to seven game series. Yeah, that’s right. He’s got that different delivery and makes me think he could become a destitute Madison Bumgarner. He does have a third pitch aside from the slider and fastball, a changeup that could be something if he works on it. It was of at least marginal positive value in 2014 according to Fangraphs’ Pitch F/X data. On the other hand, his curveball has been very bad. But he’s working on it. He obviously wants to get better. A neat video on Indians.com demonstrated a novel method he’s enacted to help him perfect his mechanics and get more downward action on his pitches. The way he throws leads to a propensity to throw the ball flat if he’s not able to get on top of the ball, but this use of the GoPro camera helps to study his motion and gain consistency (watch the video, it’s amazing what an inch or two can do for a pitcher) and improve on his stuff.

It’s exciting to think what House could be if he keeps working at it. He’s an intriguing talent especially since he came out of nowhere and besides bringing to mind MadBum when he pitches, his first year in the majors looks a lot like the White Sox southpaw Jose Quintana. Surprised? So was I. In fact, House outperformed Quintana over a similar amount of innings. The Southsider threw 136 innings in his rookie season and logged a 3.76 ERA, 4.21 FIP and a 4.57 SIERA while earning 1.6 WAR. All numbers were surpassed by House  save WAR, since he threw 34 fewer innings. Since then Quintana has improved markedly, dropping his FIP to 2.81 in 2014 and worth 5.3 WAR. He’s quietly has turned into one of the better pitchers in the AL, and if not for that pesky Chris Sale sitting on the other side of the clubhouse, maybe the best lefty in the league.

Aug 31, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Jose Quintana throws a pitch against the Detroit Tigers during the first inning at U.S Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not just the resultant numbers though. Looking at what Quintana was his rookie year, an unheralded lefty with questionable stuff, a lot of it mirrors House. Quintana’s fastball sat at 90.1 MPH according to Pitch F/X. House is right there at 90.4, and his highest measured velocity was a tick higher than Quintana’s. Quintana was better at missing bats his first year, his fastball causing a whiff 7.1% of the time (and 7.8% for his career now) to House’s piddling 2.8%. The slider, his best secondary pitch, was at 20.7% this year and his change at 16.3%, both besting Quintana’s work either his rookie year (9.3%, 4.1%) or even now, with 12.2% swinging strikes on the slider and 7% for the change. Quintana’s curve has been his out pitch though and when compared to House’s, there is no comparison. Which is odd with the tradition of baseball being the lefty as wily and throwing garbage and curves. But whatever. What I’m saying is, their repertoires are comparable, and though the stuff for Quintana now is stronger, he’s been around the majors getting comfortable and getting lessons from the criminally underrated and brilliant Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. Which is not to say I don’t trust Mickey Callaway, that guy turned Ubaldo Jimenez around for a year and earned him $80 million. I’d like to see what the Mick does to House.

The biggest difference between the two is experience. They’re both 25 and Quintana got started in 2011. While he might plateau a bit after his rise to very goodness he’s certainly a pitcher any team would beg for. He just keeps on surpassing expectations. I can’t be the only one who kept expecting him to falter or flame out and he keeps proving me the fool. Plus, House had the advantage of a wonky delivery and the league not having a book on him. It all depends on how this offseason progresses. If he improves incrementally in what he’s good at, refines his mechanics to be more exactingly repeatable and gets that third pitch down more firmly, he could be a great middle of the rotation guy. Plus, he’s got the Gavin Floyd signing and Floyd’s guarantee of a rotation spot to drive him. He’s the first of three odd men out so he’ll have to impress in his offseason work and really show out in Spring Training to bump someone to the pen or Columbus. Or Floyd could fail I guess, which is a definite possibility. The way the season shakes out, the Indians listing eight starting pitchers on their website depth chart is one of the more honest things I’ve seen from a team. House is going to be a major factor in the Indians in 2015, whether he gets 150 or even 200 innings, or just works his way into 100+ like he did in 2014. He’s been a pleasant surprise and he’s already had the “tested by the fires of a pennant race” experience. He gets major league life. He knows how to succeed, he just has to do it. However it works out, this is just another dash of the Indians stumbling into some brilliant, unheralded luck.