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A sleeper who woke up: T.J. House, LHP, Cleveland Indians

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The Cleveland Indians got a fine 2014 debut season from rookie starter T.J. House. Here's why.

T.J. House
T.J. House
Jonathan Daniel

Cleveland Indians rookie starter T.J. House had a solid 2014 season. Making 18 starts and one relief outing for the major league squad, he posted a 3.35 ERA in 102 innings, 3.69 FIP, with an 80/22 K/BB and 113 hits allowed. This generated a 1.1 fWAR, not outstanding but certainly credible for a rookie that few people payed attention to pre-season.

Here's his background.

House was drafted by the Indians in the 16th round in 2008, from high school in Picayune, Mississippi. His draft status was a little misleading: he was considered a third-round talent, but everyone thought he was going to college at Tulane, pushing down his draft stock. The Indians took a flyer and convinced him to sign for $750,000.

House made his pro debut in 2009 and was immediately successful, with a 3.15 ERA and a 109/49 K/BB in 134 innings for Lake County. I filed this report for 2010:

SLEEPER ALERT!!!  House is one of the better-kept secrets in the minors. Drafted in the 16th round in 2008 from high school in Picayune, Mississippi, House would have gone as high as the second round but teams were scared away by a Tulane commitment. The Indians ended up signing him for $750,000, and right now it looks like a good investment. He made his pro debut in the full-season South Atlantic League and pitched well, showing a low-90s sinker and a strong curveball. His component ratios were decent enough, and given that he had no rookie ball experience at all, his season has to be counted as a significant success. I think a major breakout is very possible in 2010. Grade B-.

Moved up to Kinston in the Carolina League for 2010, he posted a 3.91 ERA with a 106/61 K/BB in 136 innings. The report entering 2011:

I gave T.J. House a Sleeper Alert tag and an aggressive Grade B- rating last year, noting that a breakthrough was possible. It didn’t really happen. Most of his components were similar, but there was a substantial rise in his walk rate moving up to the Carolina League, which impacted his ERA. House has a low 90s sinker and a good changeup, but is still working to refine his breaking ball. Lefties hit .317 against him, reflecting the need for another pitch. He still has potential but remains a work in progress. Grade C

Scheduled to move up to Double-A for 2011, he opened back at Kinston due to roster crowding at Akron. Alas, he ended up spending the entire season there, struggling with a 5.19 ERA and a disturbing deterioration in his strikeout ratios. His velocity was down a bit and his breaking ball was stagnant.

T.J. House had an OK season in the Carolina League in 2010, but was sent back there for 2011 due to roster crowding in Double-A. He would have been promoted if he’d pitched well, but he didn’t pitch well at all, especially in the second half. He posted a 6.89 ERA with a 36/27 K/BB and 64 hits allowed in 48 innings over his last 10 starts. House has an 88-90 MPH fastball along with a good changeup, but his curveball isn’t developing and the wheels came off his wagon last summer. He is still young enough to rebound but caution is advised. Grade C.

Returned to High-A to open 2012, he pitched brilliantly in four starts and finally got the call to Akron, posting a 3.98 ERA with a 90/44 K/BB in 124 innings. His velocity was still in the 88-91 range, a little slower than earlier in his career, but his breaking ball improved enough for him to handle Double-A. The comment entering 2013:

T.J. House had a tough 2011 season in the Carolina League, but he rebounded with a strong start in 2012, got promoted to Double-A, and remained reasonably effective throughout the campaign. He’s not spectacular stuff-wise, working at 88-91 with his sinker and mixing in a good changeup. He made some progress with his erratic breaking ball last year, and followed up the Akron performance with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League (3.00 ERA, 26/9 K/BB in 27 innings, 20 hits). House should begin 2013 in Triple-A, and a major league call could come if he continues to pitch well. He looks like a fifth starter or long relief option. Grade C.

House spent most of 2013 with Triple-A Columbus, posting a 4.32 ERA with a 110/54 K/BB in 141 innings, allowing 163 hits. I didn't file a pre-season report on him for 2014, thinking that he'd established himself as a hittable Quadruple-A type, throwing in the upper-80s without spectacular secondary pitches, and considering it unlikely that he would see substantial major league time in '14.

That analysis was completely wrong: as noted, he was one of the better rookie starters in the majors this season.

So what was going on this year, and is it sustainable?

House's fastball has great sinking action and always has, but it's shown more velocity this year, clocked as high as 94 MPH and averaging 90-92. This is three or four MPH higher than the reports from 2011, 2012, and 2013, and closer to what he was doing back in 2009 and 2010 when he was pitching well in A-ball. This didn't exactly come out of nowhere: this is the fastball he showed coming out of high school. It slipped for a few years but is back now.

He's always had a solid change-up and still shows it, but it looks like he's made substantial progress with his breaking stuff, refining a previously non-distinct breaker into a hard slider that eats lefties and an occasional softer curve. He is an extreme ground ball pitcher; indeed, his ground ball ratios (2.45 GO/AO) were actually substantially higher in the majors this year than they were in the minors (1.45 in his minor league career). His control was also better this year: his BB/9 in the majors was lower than it ever was in the minors.

Summarizing the keys to his 2014 success:

***House has (re)gained velocity on his fastball, giving him a bigger margin for error.
***House has sharpened his slider.
***House has always had a good change-up but the better fastball and slider gives him more to off-set it.
***House has refined his control, walking fewer men in the majors than he did in the minors.

What happens now?

House has always stayed healthy and done a good job eating innings, so a catastrophic health issue doesn't seem especially likely, although such a risk is never zero. He's got some mental fortitude and has shown the ability to adjust and make needed changes. My guess is that while some regression is likely, he isn't a total fluke and can be a solid inning-eater going forward. His margin of error will never be huge and of course he could struggle if he loses command or sees his velocity decline again.

However, if i had to guess, I'd say that House will spend the next decade in the majors, posting some seasons similar to 2014 and some worse. Eventually he'll lose enough that he falls out of the rotation, but then has a second career in the bullpen as a LOOGY type well into his 30s.