Times I Was Wrong: Tanner Roark

"'You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.' - Wayne Gretzky" - Michael Scott

I like to think I’m always right and that every prediction I make about baseball is accurate. Like in April when I said Tyler Clippard would be fine after his typical April swoon and he went on to have a 2.18 ERA and 1.5 wins above replacement by FanGraphs. Or in June when I said that Jordan Zimmermann, then a possessor of a 4.07 ERA would turn it around any day and on the same day he threw eight shutout innings on his way to a season ending no hitter, 2.66 ERA and 5.2 WAR. Unfortunately, that is not always the case and I made an egregiously bad call last offseason about a certain Nationals starting pitcher, Tanner Roark.

Last September, when Roark was right in the midst of his sensational 53.2 inning, 1.51 ERA, 1.5 WAR rookie season, I tweeted this about the surprising right hander.

Which on its own isn’t so bad and I maintain still would have been a great baseball story, but obviously Roark decided to write a significantly better story than I. But then I decided to double down and tweet this in November.

Yeah, that’s bad. Even when allowing for the fact that there was some clear hyperbole on my part, that overall idea, that Roark wouldn’t be more than a spot starter at best for the Nats, still is very clearly not true. Roark threw a lot of pitches for the Nats in 2014 alone, 2999 to be exact. And he had a 2.85 ERA and 3.0 WAR by season’s end, more than good enough to ensure many more years of throwing pitches in the Majors, most likely with the Nationals. So that’s a Rick Ankiel swinging at strike three above his head sized whiff.

Interestingly, there was a good chance that wasn’t going to be the case. A few weeks later the Nationals traded for Doug Fister, seemingly filling their rotation with Fister and Ross Detwiler sliding in behind the top three of Stephen Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez. And even when the Nats made the surprise announcement in spring that Detwiler would be moving to the bullpen instead, it seemed like Taylor Jordan would be the likely victor of the fifth starter competition.

But then Fister hit the disabled list for a month to start the season, opening up spots for both Jordan and Roark, the latter of which ran away with the fifth starter job with a 2.76 ERA in 32.2 innings in April. Roark continued his hot pitching and finished his first complete MLB season as one of the biggest surprises and best stories in baseball. So the million dollar question is what did I miss last November when I thought his 15 minutes of fame were already up? In two words: walk rate.

Season Team BB%
2011 Nationals (AA) 7.80%
2012 Nationals (AAA) 7.30%
2013 Nationals (AAA) 4.80%
2013 Nationals 5.40%
2014 Nationals 4.90%

You see that time in 2013 when Roark’s walk rate at AAA Syracuse suddenly dropped from 7.30 percent in 2012, which was about his career average up to that point, to 4.80 percent? And then when it stayed at around 5.40 percent during his stint in the Majors? That turned out to be a little more than indicative about what had changed in Roark. Last offseason I had chalked that up to a one season fluke, but after another full season at 4.90 percent and with a host of extra MLB data it has become clear that this is an actual change in Roark’s command and control.

This is a problem with non-prospects who are just hanging out in the minors, scouts don’t pay attention to them, nobody writes about them and there’s only superficial data to help identify guys who have made a change, leading them to slip through the cracks. Roark didn’t have much of a pedigree, he didn’t show up on any prospect rankings and was acquired in a deadline deal for the final season of an already horribly declining Christian Guzman. So when he made a switch from predominantly featuring his four seam fastball to his two seamer and focusing on staying in the strike zone, no one besides the Nationals front office took notice.

After a full season in the Majors we can better see the effects of that change. In 252.1 career innings, Roark has thrown 51.8 percent of his pitches inside the strike zone according to PITCHf/x, much better than the 2014 league average of 48.6 percent. He’s also gotten ahead in the count often, with a career first pitch strike rate of 66.2 percent, well above the league average of 60.8 percent. And PITCHf/x has him throwing nearly as many two seamers (31.6 percent) as he did four seamers (35.1 percent) in 2014.

Despite this, Roark still isn’t a strikeout pitcher, another reason why he stayed under the radar. His career strikeout rate of 17.8 percent and swinging strike rate of 7.8 percent are both well below league average. But this is where another piece of the puzzle falls into place, he isn’t using this advantage to strike people out, rather he’s trying to get hitters into bad counts to induce weak contact. Case in point, for his career Roark has held opposing batters to a .265 batting average on balls in play, buoyed by a 12.0 percent infield fly ball rate. In other words, he’s Steve McCatty’s greatest dream.

There are still some cracks in the armor. While we know pitchers have some control over their BABIPs, a career average of .265 is still a bit ridiculous. As is Roark’s career strand rate of 79.4 percent, both of which contribute a great deal to his having a 68-point gap between his career ERA, 2.57, and FIP, 3.25. But even if his ERA matched his FIP, or matched his higher 2014 FIP of 3.47, that’s still a great pitcher to have at the back of a good rotation. Maybe Roark still takes a small step back after dazzling us these first two years, but to me he no longer looks like the sure candidate to flame out like he did in 2013.


Capitol Dugout Top Stories

\r\n\r\n

Which on its own isn’t so bad and I maintain still would have been a great baseball story, but obviously Roark decided to write a significantly better story than I. But then I decided to double down and tweet this in November.

\r\n \r\n

I wouldn't be surprised if Tanner Roark never throws another pitch for the Nats.

— James O'Hara (@nextyeardc) November 12, 2013
\r\n\r\n\r\n

Yeah, that’s bad. Even when allowing for the fact that there was some clear hyperbole on my part, that overall idea, that Roark wouldn’t be more than a spot starter at best for the Nats, still is very clearly not true. Roark threw a lot of pitches for the Nats in 2014 alone, 2999 to be exact. And he had a 2.85 ERA and 3.0 WAR by season’s end, more than good enough to ensure many more years of throwing pitches in the Majors, most likely with the Nationals. So that’s a Rick Ankiel swinging at strike three above his head sized whiff.

\r\n\r\n

Interestingly, there was a good chance that wasn’t going to be the case. A few weeks later the Nationals traded for Doug Fister, seemingly filling their rotation with Fister and Ross Detwiler sliding in behind the top three of Stephen Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez. And even when the Nats made the surprise announcement in spring that Detwiler would be moving to the bullpen instead, it seemed like Taylor Jordan would be the likely victor of the fifth starter competition.

\r\n\r\n

But then Fister hit the disabled list for a month to start the season, opening up spots for both Jordan and Roark, the latter of which ran away with the fifth starter job with a 2.76 ERA in 32.2 innings in April. Roark continued his hot pitching and finished his first complete MLB season as one of the biggest surprises and best stories in baseball. So the million dollar question is what did I miss last November when I thought his 15 minutes of fame were already up? In two words: walk rate.

\r\n\r\n\r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n
SeasonTeamBB%
2011Nationals (AA)7.80%
2012Nationals (AAA)7.30%
2013Nationals (AAA)4.80%
2013Nationals5.40%
2014Nationals4.90%
\t\r\n\t\r\n

You see that time in 2013 when Roark’s walk rate at AAA Syracuse suddenly dropped from 7.30 percent in 2012, which was about his career average up to that point, to 4.80 percent? And then when it stayed at around 5.40 percent during his stint in the Majors? That turned out to be a little more than indicative about what had changed in Roark. Last offseason I had chalked that up to a one season fluke, but after another full season at 4.90 percent and with a host of extra MLB data it has become clear that this is an actual change in Roark’s command and control.

\r\n\r\n

This is a problem with non-prospects who are just hanging out in the minors, scouts don’t pay attention to them, nobody writes about them and there’s only superficial data to help identify guys who have made a change, leading them to slip through the cracks. Roark didn’t have much of a pedigree, he didn’t show up on any prospect rankings and was acquired in a deadline deal for the final season of an already horribly declining Christian Guzman. So when he made a switch from predominantly featuring his four seam fastball to his two seamer and focusing on staying in the strike zone, no one besides the Nationals front office took notice.

\r\n\r\n

After a full season in the Majors we can better see the effects of that change. In 252.1 career innings, Roark has thrown 51.8 percent of his pitches inside the strike zone according to PITCHf/x, much better than the 2014 league average of 48.6 percent. He’s also gotten ahead in the count often, with a career first pitch strike rate of 66.2 percent, well above the league average of 60.8 percent. And PITCHf/x has him throwing nearly as many two seamers (31.6 percent) as he did four seamers (35.1 percent) in 2014.

\r\n\r\n

Despite this, Roark still isn’t a strikeout pitcher, another reason why he stayed under the radar. His career strikeout rate of 17.8 percent and swinging strike rate of 7.8 percent are both well below league average. But this is where another piece of the puzzle falls into place, he isn’t using this advantage to strike people out, rather he’s trying to get hitters into bad counts to induce weak contact. Case in point, for his career Roark has held opposing batters to a .265 batting average on balls in play, buoyed by a 12.0 percent infield fly ball rate. In other words, he’s Steve McCatty’s greatest dream.

\r\n\r\n

There are still some cracks in the armor. While we know pitchers have some control over their BABIPs, a career average of .265 is still a bit ridiculous. As is Roark’s career strand rate of 79.4 percent, both of which contribute a great deal to his having a 68-point gap between his career ERA, 2.57, and FIP, 3.25. But even if his ERA matched his FIP, or matched his higher 2014 FIP of 3.47, that’s still a great pitcher to have at the back of a good rotation. Maybe Roark still takes a small step back after dazzling us these first two years, but to me he no longer looks like the sure candidate to flame out like he did in 2013.

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