After a brief stint on the Indians’ disabled list, T.J. House is back in Columbus. Although he made the major league roster out of camp, he struggled all throughout April to rediscover what made him successful both last year and in Spring Training. While his injury may have played a role in his ineffectiveness, it certainly isn’t the only reason House is pitching for the Clippers.
Shaun Marcum now holds the fifth starter’s job, and while it seems like it is his to lose at the moment, House is fully capable of turning his season around and reclaiming his role with the Tribe. Being sent to Triple-A might be the best thing that could possibly have happened to the lefty, who will now have the opportunity to figure out why his four starts devolved into a 13.15 ERA over just 13 innings. His 6.30 FIP gives a glimmer of hope that he can turn it around quickly, and pitch at an average level for the rest of the season.
At least some of House’s issues can be traced to his opponents – he’s faced the Tigers twice, in addition to the Blue Jays and the surprisingly hot Twins’ offense. All of those lineups are powerful and predominantly right-handed. In fact, House has pitched in only eight plate appearances against a left-handed batter. Consider the names of some of those right-handed hitters – Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Yoenis Cespedes – and it’s no wonder House looks like a different pitcher than he did in 2014.
But part of being a major league starter is being able to go every fifth day, regardless of your opponent. The Tribe can’t rely on House if he’s only capable of pitching to teams like the Marlins. So what will it take for him to get back to the majors?
The biggest culprit for his struggles might be his walk rate, which has ballooned to 16.4 percent so far this year. It’s a small sample size, but it’s a drastic difference. Last season, he walked just 5.1 percent of batters – lower than the league average of 7.2 percent. This season, House seems to nibble around the plate, fearful of giving batters something to hit. In the past, he’s always been a strike-thrower who works quickly and relies on his defense to get the necessary outs.
The Tribe’s defense isn’t exactly trustworthy, but House must put his faith in them to be successful. He doesn’t have an “out pitch”, like Corey Kluber‘s slider or Cody Allen‘s curveball. House has a 9.7 percent swing-and-miss rate, which is down from last year’s 15.4 percent rate and far below the league average of 16.3 percent. In fact, hitters have swung at just 37.2 percent of his pitches altogether this season. That means that over 60 percent of the time, batters are simply watching his pitches.
With ratios like that, it’s hard to be successful. Combine that with the fact that batters are not afraid to run on him – he’s allowed four stolen bases this year, despite only pitching 13 innings – and it’s a recipe for disaster.
All House needs to do to get back to the major leagues, theoretically, is to throw more strikes. Will he still give up more runs than the rest of the rotation? Almost certainly. But a solo home run is far less damaging than walking the bases loaded and giving up even more runs. Hitters weren’t able to wait on their pitches last season, because House would pound the strike zone and force them to swing. Now they can sit back and wait on a something they like, knowing that he either can’t or won’t put hitters away.
Nothing is ever as easy as it seems, so House will certainly have his work cut out for him. No statistics can fully explain the reason behind the decrease in strikes – it might related to his injury, or it might just be mental. Whatever the underlying cause, the solution is clear. If he throws more strikes, he’ll find himself back in Cleveland and performing closer to the 3.35 ERA he had last season. At 25 years old, House has plenty of time to figure it out, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t get another chance with the Indians’ major league club the minute he finally does.