Friday, December 5, 2014

Roarks' Breakout

Going into the 2014 season, Tanner Roark wasn’t just a question mark in the starting rotation, he wasn’t even guaranteed a spot on the major league roster. He was in competition with Taylor Jordan for the 5th starter’s spot, and there was plenty of discussion over sending him to the bullpen or starting him in AAA. Ultimately, Doug Fister’s pre-season injury allowed both Jordan and Roark the opportunity to start on the big league ball club and the rest, as they say, is history as Roark seized the chance and ran with it.

To say that Roark’s 2014 season was a shock is an overstatement, but his track record in the minors certainly didn’t paint the picture of a pitcher capable of handling big league hitters. As recently as 2012 in AAA for the Nats, Roark put up a 4.39 ERA with a below average strike out rate. If you are looking for a narrative or a turning point in this story, it comes when Roark decides to ditch his four seam fastball and go exclusively with his two seam fastball, a pitch that he can throw hard (low 90s) with movement. That seems to be the change that got him to the big leagues. 

Roark subscribes to the Zimmermann philosophy of pitching. He throws a lot of fastballs (67% of the time in 2014), although in his case these fastballs are of the 2 seam, sinker variety, and he throws them for strikes early in the count (65% first pitch strike in 2014). Getting ahead early in the count allows him to utilize his offspeed pitches, which are surprisingly effective. His slider gets a swing and miss almost 19% of the time while his change and curve generate whiffs at over a 14% rate, all marks above league average. He also appears to have plus control over his pitches, as he posted a tiny walk rate of 4.9% in 2014, well below the league average of 7.6%. 

The difficulty with projecting Roar for 2015 is his lack of a track record, as his peripheral stats are not pretty. Despite the swing and miss qualities of offspeed pitches, his strikeout rate of 17.3% in 2014 is well below the league average 20.4% due to the fact that he doesn’t throw his fastball (again, which he throws nearly 70% of the time) past anyone. The sinker, despite the movement, gets a swing and miss only 4% of the time, so it’s very often being put into play. That lack of strikeouts means that although his ERA of 2.85 in 2014 was a stellar mark, his FIP (ERA with league average batted ball luck) was only 3.47, indicating he was the beneficiary of some positive batted ball luck. That certainly seems to be the case as his BABIP allowed mark of .270 was significantly below the league mark of .295 and his strand rate (rate of players who reached base to be stranded there and not score) of 79.3% was way over the league rate of 73%. He also didn’t give up very many homeruns as his HR/FB rate of 7% was also below league average. 

For those reasons, the early 2015 Steamer projections for Roark are not pretty. It predicts a 4.08 ERA as he regresses in BABIP allowed, homeruns allowed, strand rate, and walk rate. While those aren’t terrible numbers for the #5 starter, I’m sure a lot of Nats fans would be disappointed in that kind of a year for Roark. I’m not ready to go all doom and gloom, though. Roark has shown his is willing and able to make adjustments. It’s hard to predict that he can continue his success with the fastball. Given how often he throws it and how difficult it is for him to get swings and misses out of them, you would expect the scouting report is out on him and hitters will start planning for his sinker early in the count. His offspeed pitches look to be average to above average, so perhaps he can start working those in more often to keep hitters off balance. Whatever the case may be, Roark is highly unlikely to put up the same numbers in 2015 as he did in 2014, the question is how much of a pullback there is. This will be something to watch closely as the 2015 season unfolds.

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