Wednesday, December 16, 2015

2015 Season Review: Tanner Roark

Of all the season reviews to write, Tanner Roark’s is the toughest. It was hard last year because of the lack of real, reliable data to base an analysis off of. Roark had a bumpy minor league career, made some tweaks to his pitching types and pitching mix in mid-2013, and blew up in 2014. At the end of 2015, because of the way Roark was used during the season, it’s almost back to square one. Is the real Roark the starting pitcher who posted a sub 3.00 ERA in 2014? Is the real Roark the middling reliever from 2015? Is the real Roark the nearly 5.00 ERA starting pitcher from 2015?

Right off the bat, Roark’s impressive 2014 displayed a lot of signs of being an outlier. It’s probably safe to assume that 2014 was a career year for Roark and he’s not that good of a pitcher, something the Nationals and Mike Rizzo clearly recognized when they signed Max Scherzer last off season and bumped Roark to the bullpen. Unfortunately, the team (Rizzo, Williams, Roark himself possibly) never decided what role Roark was supposed to play. Roark made 40 appearances in 2015, consisting of 12 starts, 13 appearances of 1 inning or less, 11 appearances of 1-2 innings, and 4 appearances of 2-3 innings. Roark was a part time starter, part time situational pitcher, part time middle relief arm. Craig Stammen carved out a career for himself by being able to fill this role, but Stammen is rather unique in this regard. Roark struggled in trying to fill that versatile role in 2015 and it’s hard to separate his struggles with his role from his true talent level.

As a reliever, Roark was a middling pitcher. He posted a 3.74 ERA in 46 innings. Knowing he didn’t have to save his bullets for a five inning plus start, Roark pumped up the velocity on all his pitches. As a result, Roark’s strikeout rate jumped to 18% from 17% last year, which was already an inflated number. However, that increased velocity also lead to an increase in walks, with Roark’s walk rate jumping from 5% to 6.4% as a reliever in 2015. On top of all that, Roark got worked over by the long ball as his home run rate also spiked.

In 65 innings as a starting pitcher, both at the end of the season and in some spot starts mid season, the surface numbers are even worse for Roark. He put up a 4.82 ERA that hides an even worse 5.29 FIP. Strangely enough, those increased strikeouts from Roark’s work as a reliever disappeared and his strikeout rate plummeted to 13%. He was still vulnerable to the long ball as a starter as his home run per fly ball rate went all the way up to 16.7% after a 7% rate last year. In a sense, everything that could have gone worse for Roark as a starter, did.

In Roark’s last couple of starts, though, he looked more comfortable. Over those starts, he allowed only 2 earned runs in 13 innings of work to go along with 10 strikeouts. Now, that is certainly a small sample size and not something to bank on as his true talent level. But, Roark did make one noticeable change in those starts that could indicate better things to come. Prior to those two starts, the velocity bump Roark used out of the bullpen carried over to his starts. During the last two starts, his fastball velocity was around 92 MPH, the usual velocity for his fastball in his impressive 2014 season. That velocity drop can't be due to fatigue, Roark threw just over 100 innings. Rather, it appears that Roark made the decision to dial it down with the velocity.

Perhaps the spike in velocity as a result of the bullpen role are to blame for Roark’s struggles. On the season, Roark threw all his pitchers harder, not only the fastball but also his changeup, slider, and curveball. While higher velocity is usually a good thing, higher velocity comes with consequences and it certainly did for Roark. The faster pitches Roark threw in 2015 moved differently from how the pitches moved in 2014. On the whole, he got less cut, less bite to his pitches, resulting in flatter offerings. Flatter offerings that resulted in more home runs. If Roark picked up on this and made a change, and his last two starts indicate he might have, perhaps 2015 will end up being outlier as well.

No matter where Roark ends up next season, the bullpen or the starting rotation, it would serve Roark well to hold down that role for the year to allow him to adapt appropriately. After his 2014 season, Roark has earned the chance to fight for his starting rotation spot. The key may come in the changes from those last two starts. Sitting 92 with the fastball rather than 94 and taking a little off the off speed pitches to induce more movement would turn Roark back into the pitcher Nationals fans saw in 2014. The heights of 2014 are likely unrepeatable career year, but smart money would be on Roark to bounce back in better shape than his 2015 season.

Previous 2015 Season Reviews:
Denard Span
Ian Desmond
Doug Fister
Jordan Zimmermann
Wilson Ramos
Ryan Zimmerman
Danny Espinosa
Yunel Escobar
Bryce Harper
Michael A Taylor
Jayson Werth
Gio Gonzalez
Max Scherzer


  1. Excellent analysis; wish The Post would do more on Roark. To me, the decline and injuries of Roark and Fister in 2015 were as much as anything the explanation for the decline of the Nats and ultimately Matt Williams' firing. Even a slightly better performance from either pitcher could have put the Nats in the 90-win category. I can't believe the Nats would be counting on Roark or Ross/Roark in 2016 to replace Jordan Zimmermann. So what's their plan? Right now they are a second place, 85-win team at best. Or am I off?

    1. The declines of Roark and Fister were somewhat predictable heading into 2015, which is why Rizzo went out and got Scherzer, I believe. Rizzo isn't done this offseason. You have seen him in play on some starters, so I wouldn't count the Nats out on a SP just yet. However, I'm not as down on a 4/5 of Roark/Ross. Don't forget how bad Stras was for most of last season. A full year of a healthy Stras plus an improved infield defense behind Roark/Ross(it was truly pretty horrible in 2015) might be able to pick up the slack from losing Zimmermann. Joe Ross is up next, so tune back in for his review!

  2. I guess I am impatient for quicker changes. And Stras is often hurt. I can't count on him for a whole season. He shows flashes of brilliance but hasn't sustained that over a whole season. I get what you're saying about improved infield. Bullpen better on paper too. I just want three reliable starters who keep us on winning streaks of 2-3 games or longer. At some point I'd love to read your sense of how we match up at this point in time with our division.