Annual reminder that I'm on Twitter doing mostly baseball stuff during the season @harpergordek for those that do Twitter.
Tanner Roark is probably the most interesting piece in the Nats rotation. Five years ago, in 2012 at 24, he was bumped up to AAA after two straight unimpressive AA years, to see what he could do. He continued to do nothing special, eating up 150 innings with a mid 4.00 ERA. At that point he had "organizational innings eater" written all over him. Maybe he'd get a fill-in shot in the majors or maybe he'd move into long relief. No one thought he'd become a top of the rotation starter.
Yet that is exactly what happened. Don't buy into the "Nats always believed in Roark" narrative. After a slow climb through the system powered by the "let's see what he can do at this level now that he's this age" forces that keep players moving up as long as they are passable, he seemed to have reached his end point in AAA. Following a 3.2 IP 12 hit, 10 run start early in 2013, the Nats gave up on Roark the starter and moved him to the pen. He only got another shot at starting in AAA after he pitched well enough and circumstances opened up. He'd take advantage of it and impress enough to be called up but still he was brought up as a reliever, not a starter. He'd get his chance at starting only after Ross Ohlendorf, who he was originally brought up to replace, grew tired in the starters role. He impressed again, enough to fight and earn a starting role for 2014. He flourished. The Nats didn't buy it. They signed Max and pushed him into the pen in 2015. But when circumstances brought him back into the rotation in 2016, he did flourished again. Once is a fluke. Twice is a pattern.
How and why did this change happen in 2013? Roark credited a renewed focus on throwing strikes and attacking hitters. Others noticed a greater tendency to keep the ball down. The numbers seem to back both thoughts up. Roark has never had the best arm with a fastball hovering in the 92-93 range and was never a big strikeout guy. If you aren't a strikeout guy you need to be a control guy who limits homers. Prior to 2013 Roark wasn't that. He wasn't terribly wild but his walk rate of around 3 per 9IP was a far cry from a control guy. And while he didn't give up a lot of homers he wasn't especially great at avoiding them either. You can completely see why he was an ok minor leaguer. He was ok at everything but not good at anything.
But since 2013 things have been different. Roark did seemingly attack the zone and throw more strikes. His walk rate dropped to be about 2 per 9. He did seemingly keep the ball down. His HR rate was nearly cut in half. There you go. I don't want to understate though that this kind of change is incredibly hard. Everyone says the same things. "I need to hit my spots and keep the ball out of places the batter can kill it." But few people can do that.
So, Roark is a good pitcher now, end of story? Well...
We'll skip 2015 for obvious reasons and move ahead to last year. In 2016 Roark was a different sort of pitcher. His control reverted back to his old ways and he walked over 3 per inning again. Why didn't that show? Well a small part is that his HR rate was still lower than it had been. Another small part was he kicked up his K rate a little. Both those things helped. But the big reason is that he's gotten a bunch of soft contact. He had always been pretty good at getting it (since 2013 at least) but has managed to improve over time. He had the third best "soft hit" rate for qualified starters in 2016. He had already been a GB pitcher and the combination of those two things makes for a lot of easy outs. Or at least it should.
This bring us to 2017. I mentioned a couple days ago that the Nats D worried me. It was almost certain to contribute less than last year and if a couple things break the wrong way (Rendon is really hurt, Turner is nothing special) it could face a precipitous decline. No Nats pitcher would feel the brunt of that more than Tanner Roark. He relies on ground balls not finding holes. This gets him his outs and if someone gets on, it keeps them from scoring. This worked out for him last year as it did in 2014 and 2013. This year is more of a question mark.
Roark was almost certain to not hit the same ERA mark as he did last year. He had some situational luck that probably wouldn't be replicated. But a few ticks in the ERA shouldn't matter. 3.10 ERA instead of 2.85? Whatever. What could matter though is if those ticks come with a few more balls getting through and just a tad bit of a decline. A couple more guys on base, a couple more balls out of the park. At 29 years old that's certainly not given, but it's not a crazy thought.
Roark isn't walking a tightrope here. It's not a Doug Fister situation where we were all going "This is going to end badly when it ends". Roark won't flop out of the rotation. But he could find himself with an ERA almost a run higher doing basically nothing different. He could move from that 3rd guy you like to see go out there to a reliable back of the rotation arm. Some are going to want to blame a change in prep from the WBC but I'm looking at it and seeing things in place already. We'll start to see where it ends up today I guess.