Taylor Jordan made nine starts this year before the Nationals turned to Tanner Roark. Nate Karns made three; even Zach Duke got a chance to start before Roark. And why not? Texas’ 2008 25th-rounder — he was traded to Washington in 2010 for Cristian Guzman, and how is Guzman still only 35 years old? — lost 17 games with a 4.39 ERA in Triple-A last year, was unprotected and unselected in the Rule 5 draft, and spent much of this year coming out of the Syracuse bullpen.
Now, suddenly, Roark is the talk of the town as the Nationals make an improbable run at the final wild card spot, having won seven of the 12 games he’s appeared in with a 1.08 ERA and generating stories about his inclusion in the 2014 rotation.
Is this real life? Is this just fantasy? More importantly, is Roark a name you really need to know as you start thinking about keepers for next year, or just someone on a well-time hot streak feasting on the expanded rosters of teams who gave up weeks ago?
First off, let’s start with a reality check: toss that 7-0 record right out the window. Yes, there’s the usual “kill the win” snarkiness in there, but it’s also because the first four wins came when Roark was coming out of the bullpen, which means you can do things like allow two runs in 1.2 innings and still get the win only because Ross Ohlendorf failed to make it through the required five frames. Wins from a starter are questionable at best; wins from a reliever are almost a total crapshoot, and that’s how you end up with opinions like “Roark has as many wins as Stephen Strasburg!”
Not only did Johnson say that he views Roark above Jordan, who had a very impressive rookie season in his own right, but he even compared the 26-year-old to a four-time Cy Young award winner who also lacked power pitches and top-notch stuff but excelled because he could hit his spots.
“Greg Maddux didn’t throw that hard, but he located the ball, and that’s why he was a very successful pitcher,” Johnson said. “But (Roark’s) put his stamp out there for one of the spots in this rotation, there’s no doubt in my mind. I mean, that’s not gonna be my decision, but he would get my vote if I’m consulted.”
Uh, sure, Davey. Still, even if neither that record nor the ERA seem legitimate, a 2.16 FIP is hardly something to ignore, especially after Roark shut down the Braves over seven shutout innings on Tuesday to finish off a doubleheader sweep.
As you might expect, Roark is no flamethrower, but nor is he Ted Lilly out there either, averaging about 92 miles per hour on his sinking fastball and occasionally dialing it up to 94. It’s really that sinker that’s his bread-and-butter, relying on it more than half the time and generating a good-but-not-elite groundball rate of 45%.
What Roark has been able to do, at least in his short time up, is both command the zone and limit damage. In 41.2 innings, he’s allowed exactly two extra-base hits — both doubles — and thrown a first-pitch strike an above-average 68.4% of the time.
When asked why he’s having more success this year, Roark attributed it to a change in approach that he made during 2012:
How? Roark’s ascension began last season, when he told himself he would not allow his temper to control him on the mound. He would not the things out of his control – fluky hits, errors, whatever – distract him. He would throw strikes. He would be confident. He would attack, above all else.
“I feel that last year is when I had my, I guess, mental turnaround,” Roark said. “That was the biggest thing for me.”
Roark’s year in Triple-A started off poorly, losing his starting job after allowing ten earned runs on April 18, but after returning to the rotation in June, he had a 32/4 K/BB in nine starts — and an 84/20 K/BB overall.
Not working so much in Roark’s favor is that the quality of the opposition he’s faced so far has been poor, to put it kindly. Roark’s two starts before facing Atlanta came against the Marlins & Mets, two of the worst hitting teams in baseball, and other than three shots against the Braves, he’s only faced Miami (three times), the Mets (twice), and the Cubs, Royals, Phillies, & Giants once apiece. Strasburg’s return to the rotation and the potential for Washington to use a six-man rotation might end up being problematic for Roark, because that might push him from one more start against Miami at home into having to go into St. Louis on Monday night. (Though Strasburg keeps getting scratched, so that remains uncertain.)
So what is Roark? He’s not a guy who is going to put up a 1.08 ERA all season long, because no one can, and he’s not someone who should be judged on a misleading win/loss record. Frankly, it’s been so few starts that I can’t say I’m completely convinced he’s going to even be a reliable big league pitcher. Still, as long as you can keep the ball on the ground and avoid the home run ball, you’ve got a good shot at a career. That said, his fantasy value could remain limited once the wins go away, since he doesn’t seem likely to ever put up serious strikeout numbers.