Nationals Baseball: Pondering Roark

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Pondering Roark

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.

20 comments:

Andrew said...

I'm not sure I buy the premise that the defense will be worse, unless Rendon really is seriously hurt. I actually think Turner's almost a wash with Espinosa (seems to me he has better range but not as good an arm) and I think Eaton will actually be an improvement in CF over the Revere/Taylor/Turner combo. None of them is particularly good according to the numbers, or that bad unless you think Eaton's 2015 is an accurate reflection of his true ability.

Jimmy said...

@Andrew-I think Murph/Werth's skills will continue to decline to counter those to points. I also think that Turner ability to play SS is more of a question mark than many people assume. I'm fully prepared to be wrong. I'm actually more worried about what Dusty does to squander Eaton's bat in the lineup as he seems to think three lefties in a row is sinful but refuses to see Eaton as a potential leadoff candidate against righties.

ocw5000 said...

I was struck by the Fangraphs analyses about his low Z-Swing %, basically succeeds by getting people to take strikes. Fangraphs won't let me plot ERA/FIP/xFIP against Z-Swing on the same chart so I can't send a link, and instead made a PNG and as soon as I figure out how to put images in here I'll show you the correlation. Oh wait I'll use Tweeter.

Harper said...

Andrew / Jimmy - I can see the range argument work in Trea's favor but only because Danny is what? 6-7 years older? Even if you give that range/arm combos wash I think Danny's experience gives him an edge.

As for Eaton - I don't think 2015 is accurate but neither do I feel like 2016 is either. Truth is I think it's somewhere in between but we're looking at in between great corner OF and terrible CF. At a corner OF that's probably a pretty decent OF, but at CF that's probably average at best. Revere/MAT were better than that. But more importantly they helped cover for Werth more.

Bjd1207 said...

@Jimmy - Dusty had 3 lefties in a row on opening day

Harper said...

ocw - that's intersting. The third thing that was mentioned that I didn't bring up was an ability to keep hitters off balance. That would play into the "taking strikes" to a point especially if coupled with swinging at balls.



meh - average at best with that. So that would be a maybe. Could be that they feel his off-speed stuff is much more hittable (looks like it IS much more hittable but still not good to hit) and they sit on that.

mike k said...

Interesting take on Roark. My eye (which means nothing) saw an improvement in Roark in 2016 because he was throwing more off-speed/his off-spead had more movement than in the past, which led to the greater strikeout rate. It probably led to the slightly more walks, too, as well as more taken strikes when he could throw it for strikes (Harper/ocw5000: either of you two feel like validating me by comparing taken strikes with pitch thrown?). His ERA in 2014 was very good, but it didn't seem as "real", and his FIP/xFIP reflected that. 2016 seemed more real.

OF defense should definitely take a drop. I think it's hard to see on TV how important range is for CF. Eaton will be better than Revere/MAT when he gets to the ball (ESPECIALLY I-don't-know-what-to-do-near-the-wall MAT), but Revere/MAT, moreso MAT, just got to more balls. Hopefully for Roark the infield defense drop won't be as bad. Zim his another year experience at first. Turner impressed me yesterday - no way he'll be as good as Espinosa, but maybe the drop won't be that bad.

Jimmy said...

@Bjd1207- Sure against a team that has 0 lefties in the bullpen. But I will grant my fear has yet to be realized and I'm preemptively panicking.

Andrew said...

I disagree that Revere/MAT were better than average. MAT is maybe average and Revere is below in my opinion. MAT is kind of like Desmond in that he has the skills to make great plays and often does, but he makes a lot of dumb mistakes that pull him back down (I seem to recall a couple Little League HRs he was responsible for). Revere's CF numbers are consistently below average and his arm is terrible. He's at least as much a good corner (only left in his case)/bad CF as Eaton.

Josh Higham said...

I think it's hard to make an argument that isn't based on "MAT frustrates me" (which is where most of my arguments about him come from) that MAT isn't an above average defensive CF. Not elite, sure. But his range is very good and his arm is quite good. There was a MAT-Danny-Ramos play at the plate last year where MAT made a rushed throw on target at 89. In 2015 he made a throw home at 102.5 mph. Big, accurate arm.

Josh Higham said...

He gave up the walk off little league homer last year, the only other little leaguer he's associated with as far as I can tell was the little league grand slam in 2015 when Cespedes committed an error.

mike k said...

@Andrew - I agree that MAT makes a ton of dumb mistakes. I'll even take it a step further and say I don't remember that many great plays he's made. Also, setting aside his horendous little league HR play, there are still numerous times he stood five feet from the wall, and then jumped *after* the ball was already sailing over his head for it to bounce off the bottom of the wall. But like I said above, he was still above-average defensively because of his range. Hard to see on TV. Fangraphs has him as a positive in 2015 and 2016, where he exclusively played CF. I admit he should be *more* of a positive, though, given his range.

G Cracka X said...

Great article, Harper! Thanks for the in-depth perspective on Roark.

Josh Higham said...

@mike k no argument from me here. He shouldn't be judged mostly for the great or horrible plays. On average, he covers a lot of ground, catches a lot of balls, and makes good throws. Underachieving on offense and defense. But underachieving when he had the potential to be a great center fielder with power still leaves plenty of room for being an above average fielder.

JDBrew said...

For Turner I am having a hard time buying the question mark at SS. In minor league ball Turner logged nearly 2000 innings at SS and seemed to handle it well enough. From scouting reports that I have read in the past he sounded certainly competent at SS. Defense doesn't change between the minor league level and the majors. I'm very confident with him at short. As far as how much the range difference between him and Danny actually impacts the game I would imagine it would be fairly small. The VAST majority of fielding opportunities are pretty routine. Maybe he's doesn't win a gold glove, but he very well could win silver slugger at his position. And honestly which will win you more ball games? I think his bat over espinosa's defense by far prevails to be a net positive. And similar sentiments go for Easton over the committee that formed a good chunk of CF last year. His defense may be not gold glove caliber, but again he could possibly win a silver slugger.

Harper said...

You're right in that both Turner and Eaton are net positive gains over what they replace. It shouldn't be even close. That being said Turner gets a ? until he performs at the major league level. That's just the way it is. Everything is faster - the pitches in, the hits out, the fastest runners. Will he be fine? I'd bet a lot of money yes. Will he be as good as Espinosa? I don't know and if I want to take a conservative approach since Espinosa was good/very good last year I'll just say I'll assume he's a little worse. Just good. Eaton is sort of the same thing defensively.

Here's the thing. I don't want this to focus on Trea and Eaton bc it's not about them, it's about everyone. Zimm wasn't good, I assume he'll be a little worse bc age and recent history. Murphy wasn't good, I assume he'll be a little worse bc age/injury. Werth wasn't good, I assume he'll be at best as little worse bc age. Wieters should be fine, but he might not be as good as Ramos was. Eaton should be fine, but he might not be as good as MAT/Revere was. Turner should be at least fine but he might not be as good as Espinosa was. Add that all up and you have something at least to bat an eye at. They haven't gotten defensively better anywhere and could arguably be worse at 6 positions. If Rendon's injury is a pre-cursor to a year long hobbling then the Nats best fielder is also worse than he was the year before. THere isn't a single point here and maybe you can argue CF D will be as good as last year or SS D will be as good as last year. But that misses the point. It's a cumulative thing.

Harper said...

How much will it matter? I don't know. I don't think much in comparison to how well they should hit and their usual top-notch pitching. I did give them 94 wins and the NL East. But if you are looking for some weakness in this team, I think this is where it is.

BxJaycobb said...

I agree defense is a weakness. I don't really follow the "Eaton will be worse defensively than our CF last year." A lot of the year you were playing either a shortstop in center field or revere, who is a below average defender. MAT is probably a bit better than Eaton, but MAT got like....what? A third of the reps out there? Less? Fair to say turner is at best similar to Danny and maybe worse. Not fair to say there's slim chance of improvement in CF defense. I disagree.

Josh Higham said...

Bryce looked great tonight. I'm putting my fears on hold.

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