Quick – Name the the top five MLB pitchers in earned run average over the last calendar year: 1) Clayton Kershaw, 2) Felix Hernandez, 3) Anibal Sanchez, 4) Jon Lester, and 5) Tanner Roark! In Roark’s first full year as a major league pitcher, he’s pitched 194-2/3 innings and gone 18–8 with a 2.54 ERA.
One year ago today, the then-26-year-old Roark made his MLB debut in a two-inning relief appearance against the Braves, an appearance watched by families and friends in a garage in his hometown of Wilmington, Illinois. At the time, Roark was the third, and least regarded member of a trio of starting pitcher prospects, along with Taylor Jordan and Nate Karns, who served as the Nats’ injury reserve along with Ross Ohlendorf and Yunesky Maya. That first outing, I remember being impressed that he was throwing strikes and seemed to know what he was doing on the mound, but I also remember thinking that major league hitters would figure out how to hit his less than overwhelming stuff.
It’s a year later, and they still haven’t figured it out. How has he done it? First, by throwing strikes—especially strike one. Among 81 qualified pitchers over the last calendar year, Roark ranks 15th lowest in walks per 9 innings, with 1.90. He also ranks among the leaders in two statistics that are generally regarded as having a large component of luck—ranking 5th lowest in batting average on balls in play (BABIP) with .262 (most pitchers regress to something like .290 to .300), and 5th lowest in home runs per fly ball with 6.3% (most pitchers regress to roughly 10%). Consequently, despite the enthusiasm of MLB Network’s Eric Byrnes, who named Roark the Nationals’ ace, projection systems continue to see Roark as the least talented of the Nats’ five starters. Nevertheless, he is also regarded as one of the most improved pitchers of this season.
Roark has thrown a mix of 64% fastballs, 16% sliders, 11% curve balls, and 9% change-ups, with an average fastball velocity of 91.5 miles per hour. In the last calendar year he ranks 13th in percentage of pitches in the zone with 48.2% (essentially tied with battery-mate Jordan Zimmermann), but Roark’s contact rate of 82.8% is well above average, while his strikeout rate of 6.75 K/9 is also below average.
A number of writers have recently celebrated Roark’s remarkable first season. He has transformed himself from a replacement level bullpen prospect, to a replacement level fifth starter, and now to the best fifth starter in baseball, a pitcher who shows up in the top leader boards. Nationals fans have been fortunate to watch his transformation.
Addenda - Dave Cameron of FanGraphs posted a nice article on Roark’s first year shortly after my piece was posted.
Based on the results of last night’s game against the Orioles, the answer is obviously no. He also shouldn’t have sent in Craig Stammen to relieve.
But the question I’m asking is a different one—at the time the decision was made, was it good strategy for Matt Williams to allow Tanner Roark to bat with two outs in the bottom of the sixth, a one-run lead, and runners on first and third?
If you read the sabermetric literature, you probably already know the answer. But let’s go through this based on simple reasoning, first addressing some questions that may have been relevant to the decision.
- Was this a high leverage situation?
Obviously, yes. There’s a “leverage index” available at FanGraphs to track how important the situation is in deciding the outcome of the game. Roark’s at bat in the bottom of the 6th had a leverage index of 1.67, meaning that it was 67% more important than an average plate appearance. Anything above 1.5 is considered to be “high leverage.” Roark’s plate appearance was the third highest in leverage of all of the Nats’ plate appearances that evening. (The higher leverage situations were when Ian Desmond struck out with runners on first and third in the 1st, and when Jayson Werth hit a sacrifice fly in the 3rd to put the Nats ahead 2–1.)
- How much longer did Williams expect Roark to pitch?
After pitching the top of the 6th, Roark was at 84 pitches, but he had faced 23 batters. Based on past usage patterns, I think the most likely scenario would be that Williams expected Roark to pitch one more inning, before turning the pitching responsibilities over to Tyler Clippard in the 8th and Rafael Soriano in the 9th.
- Was the bullpen depleted?
After the game, Williams appeared to have based his decision on saving the bullpen, saying “it depends on who else we’ve got available. Bullpen’s been pitching a lot lately…” Looking at the record, however, I don’t see evidence that the bullpen has been especially overused recently. In the prior six days, Clippard had pitched Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday; Soriano had pitched on Friday and Sunday; Jerry Blevins had pitched on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; Blake Treinen had pitched on Saturday; Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen had pitched on Thursday (with Stammen pitching 2 innings and Detwiler 1-1/3); and Drew Storen had pitched on Wednesday. Maybe Williams was trying to avoid using Clippard, but otherwise the bullpen looked well rested.
- Is Roark an especially good hitter?
No. In 65 career plate appearances, Roark’s on-base percentage is .161. In comparison, there are 123 active pitchers with at least 60 career plate appearances, among whom Roark ranks 72nd in on-base percentage. As a pitcher, Roark is pretty much an average hitter.
- Was Roark pitching especially well?
This actually could be a misleading question, because research shows that pitching well early in a game doesn’t necessarily predict how well a pitcher is going to do later in the game. But I’d have to say that no, Roark’s performance was not especially good. He had 3 strikeouts and 1 walk, so he wasn’t missing a lot of bats. It’s true that he had only given up 4 hits to that point, but 2 of those were home runs, and good fielding and saved several other hard hit balls from becoming hits. In my opinion, Roark was a little bit lucky to have only given up 2 runs in 6 innings based on how well the Orioles were hitting him.
- Should Roark have been expected to pitch better in the 7th than the available reliever?
Batters facing Roark this year have a batting line of .233/.281/.344. In comparison, batters facing Drew Storen have a batting line of .217/.271/.310. So Storen definitely should have been expected to pitch better. But it’s more debatable with some of the other pitchers that were available in the bullpen. Stammen’s line is .270/.305/.391; Detwiler’s line is .269/.346/.386; Blevins’ line is .232/.302/.331; and Treinen’s line is .278/.333/.347. But the kicker is that Roark (like most pitchers) is much more hittable the third time through the lineup. In their third plate appearance in a game, opposing batters have a line against Roark of .259/.327/.361. Compared with that, almost anyone in the bullpen, with the possible exception of Detwiler, should be expected to have pitched better than Roark in the 7th.
- How well would a pinch hitter have hit?
That’s hard to say, especially since Nate McLouth went on the DL, and Danny Espinosa and Scott Hairston have been terrible against a right handers. I probably would have gone with newly arrived Steven Souza, though Kevin Frandsen, who’s hit .216/.286/.294 against right handers would also have been a possibility. However, regardless of who had pinch hit, the expected outcome would have been significantly higher probability of a run scoring than with Roark.
So, with no expected improvement in pitching by letting Roark pitch the 7th instead of Storen, and with a definite loss in hitting, there really isn’t a good case for letting Roark hit in that situation. Williams blew it.
For the first three weeks of July, the Nats regulars were all healthy and the team played really well, going 11–5. After Ryan Zimmerman suffered a “Grade 3″ hamstring on July 22, however, and went on the disabled list, the Nats finished the month 3–5. Nevertheless, the Nats’ 14–10 record for the month allowed them to take the lead in the division from the Braves. The Nats finished the month with a 58–48 record, 1-1/2 games ahead of the Braves and 6 games ahead of the Marlins.
The Nats’ began the month at home, finishing the final 2 games of a series against the Rockies. They won both games. The Cubs then came to town, and the Nats took 2 of 3. Next the played one game at home against the Orioles, which they lost; the other game was rained out. Then they moved to Baltimore to play 2 more games and split that series. Next they then traveled to Philadelphia, where they took 2 of 3 against the Phillies just before the All Star break.
Initially only one Nat was selected to the All Star team, Jordan Zimmermann, but he dropped out after suffering a bicep strain in his last outing before the game. Tyler Clippard was named to the All Star team as a replacement player. In the game, he faced 2 batters and retired both of them. Fortunately, Zimmermann’s bicep strain was not serious and he avoided a trip to the DL.
After the break, the Nats opened with a series against the Brewers at home, which they won, 2 games to 1. Next came a road trip that started in Denver against the Rockies and then moved on to Cincinnati. The Nats took 2 games of 3 against both the Rockies and the Reds. The game they lost in Cincinnati was an epic pitching duel between Johnny Cueto and Gio Gonzalez, which the Nats lost by the score of 1–0. They finished the road trip in Miami, where the Nats gave up a 6–0 lead in the opener, as the bullpen imploded and the Marlins won 7–6 in the bottom of the ninth. They also lost the second game, before avoiding a sweep by winning the final game. The last game of the month was at home against the Phillies, and the Nats lost 10–4. The Nats also ended the month with a trade deadline deal of Zach Walters for Asdrubal Cabrera, giving the Nats an infielder who could play second base while Zimmerman is out.
With the full lineup intact for the first three weeks, the team’s offense improved in July. The Nats were tied for 3rd in the National League in runs scored in July with 111 and 4th in weighted runs created relative to league (wRC+) with 103 (that is, they created 3% more runs than the average team, taking account of park effects and quality of the league).
The starting pitching continued to be excellent. The starters’ ERA– (earned run average adjusted for park and league quality) was 83 in July (that is, 17% better than average), the second best in the NL. On the other hand, the relievers’ ERA– was 130 in July, which was next-to-last in the NL, but their fielding independent pitching (FIP–) of 89 was a more respectable 6th in the NL.
15-9 (4.63 R/G – 3.67 RA/G)
Playoff odds at the end of the month:
Baseball Prospectus: 74.8% for Division championship, 85.5% for playoffs
FanGraphs (projection mode): 78.2% for Division, 90.8% for playoffs
FanGraphs (season-to-date mode): 67.4% for Division, 80.8% for playoffs
Jayson Werth (.337/.446/.687, 24 G, 6 HR, 24 RBI, 1.6 fWAR).
Most valuable starting pitcher:
Tanner Roark (4-1, 2.06 RA/9, 5 G, 35 IP, 6.4 H/9, 7.5 K/9, 1.2 rWAR).
Most valuable relief pitcher:
Tyler Clippard (1-0, 1.00 RA/9, 9 G, 9 IP, 7.0 H/9, 12.0 K/9, 3.13 RE24, 0.4 rWAR).
Adam LaRoche (.159/ .238/ .227, 24 G, 1 HR, –0.9 fWAR).
Best start this month:
Gio Gonzalez (July 5, 13–0 win over the Cubs in Washington) pitched 8 scoreless innings, giving up only 4 hits and 1 walk while striking out 7, for a game score of 80.
Gio Gonzalez (July 31, 10–4 loss to the Phillies in Washington) gave up 8 hits, 5 runs, and 1 walk in 3-2/3 innings, while getting 2 K and a game score of 26.
- Gio Gonzalez (July 10, 4–3 loss to the Orioles in Baltimore) gave up 4 runs (3 earned) on 6 hits and 3 walks with 7 strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings (game score 52).
- Stephen Strasburg (July 18, 4–2 loss to the Brewers in Washington) gave up 4 runs on 7 hits and 1 walk with 9 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 55).
- Gio Gonzalez (July 26, 1–0 loss to the Reds in Cincinnati) gave up 1 runs on 4 hits and 2 walks with 8 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 71).
- Stephen Strasburg (July 29, 3–0 loss to the Marlins in Miami) gave up 1 run on 4 hits and 2 walks with 4 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 67).
- Doug Fister (July 21, 7–2 win over the Rockies in Colorado) gave up 2 runs on 9 hits and 2 walks with 4 strikeouts in 5-2/3 innings (game score 45).
Rafael Soriano (July 6, 2–1 win over the Cubs at home) pitched the 9th inning in a one-run ball game. He faced Ruggiano, Rizzo, and Castro and retired them in order for the save. (Win probability added .151).
Rafael Soriano (July 28, 7–6 loss to the Marlins in Miami). Soriano entered the 9th with a 6–3 lead. McGehee led off and Soriano walked him, then gave up a double to Jones and a single to Ozuna (scoring McGehee). Saltalamacchia hit a sacrifice fly for the first run, scoring Jones and making it a one-run game. After a wild pitch advanced Ozuna to second, Hechevarria hit a triple to tie the game. Soriano then hit the next batter, Solano, and was finally lifted from the game with only one out, the score tied, and runners on first and third (Win probability added –.784) Jerry Blevins came in and struck out Yelich before giving up the walk-off hit to Jeff Baker.
Jayson Werth (July 20, 5–4 win over the Brewers in Washington). With 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th, the score was tied 4–4 and Anthony Rendon was on first when Werth came to bat. Werth lined a double down the left field line, driving in Rendon for the walk-off win (WPA .440).
Ian Desmond (July 26, 1–0 loss to the Reds in Cincinnati). In the top of the 9th, Desmond was on first base, having led off the inning with a walk, when he attempted to steal second. He was thrown out, killing the Nats’ effort to mount a rally against Aroldis Chapman (WPA –.182).
I like the Zach Walters for Asdrubal Cabrera trade deadline deal. I agree with Eno Sarris of FanGraphs—the Nats got a small but clear improvement for the rest of this season in exchange for a player who, because of his poor strikeout-to-walk ratio, has only a small chance of having significant major league value. Walters’ skill set was similar to that of Danny Espinosa, and we only need one Espinosa.
I was disappointed that the Nats didn’t find a much needed bullpen upgrade. In the three games since I wrote my plea for a good bullpen arm, the Nats have amply demonstrated that their pen is overrated and may not be adequate for post-season competition. I hope that during August someone good can clear waivers and they can still work out a deal.
Maybe the worst news, however, was that the Indians picked up Cabrera’s salary, suggesting that Mark Lerner may have been dead serious with his comment that the Nats’ $135 million payroll is “beyond topped out.” If the Nats really have reached the Lerners’ payroll ceiling, I think it may prove to be tough to compete in a division that is rapidly getting better.
Going into tonight’s game, the Nats’ relievers had the second lowest ERA in the National League. ERA can be deceptive, however, and if the Nats hope to be competitive in the post-season, their bullpen needs to be upgraded at the trade deadline.
All season I’ve been watching Rafael Soriano thinking this guy isn’t as good as his save record and reputation. Too many batters reaching bases, too many games where you’re holding your breath. Tonight, he fell apart in a mammoth meltdown, giving up a three-run lead while getting only one out, as the bullpen squandered a fine pitching performance by Jordan Zimmermann.
In important pitching component statistics, the Nats bullpen doesn’t look so great. The bullpen ranks 11th in the NL in K/9 and 5th in K/BB ratio. Their low ERA may have come because they lead the league in fewest HR/9, but that’s a bit of a fluke, since most of our relievers have historically been vulnerable to home runs. The bullpen killed us in the 2012 post-season, and unless it’s upgraded, it could kill us again this year.
In putting together a trade deadline transaction, certain rules should be followed:
- Have a plan. Know who you’re going to replace, what the new guys role will be, and whether this is a one-year or multi-year deal.
- A trade should either fill a hole or make a significant upgrade. Don’t make pointless moves.*
*An example of a pointless move: Jim Bowden wants the Nats to trade with the Cubs for lefty James Russell. Why would you do that? Russell is not any better than Jerry Blevins or even Ross Detwiler. It’s pointless moves like that that made Bowden such a disaster as Nats GM.
- Make a trade based on underlying talent, not on season-to-date statistics (especially for relievers, whose statistics don’t stabilize in a single season). Fortunately, websites like FanGraphs’ depth charts now provided regularly updated projected rest-of-season statistics, providing a sound estimate of underlying talent.
Fortunately, the Nats don’t have any major holes to be filled in their bullpen, but their relievers, though generally good, are not excellent. We need to look for an upgrade who will add significant talent to the mix. I don’t care that much if it’s a righty or lefty. If we find a good right hander, we can option Aaron Barrett. If we find a lefty, Detwiler is probably the worst pitcher in our current bullpen. He’s out of options, so we’d need to trade him or release him. As I’ve written before, Detwiler’s no longer helping the team and it’s time for us to allow Detwiler to find another home.
Looking for upgrades, I went through the depth charts for the 12 teams that are (or should be) sellers at this point—the Red Sox, White Sox, Twins, Astros, Rangers, Marlins, Mets, Phillies, Cubs, Padres, Diamondbacks, and Rockies. (The Reds and maybe the Rays are on the borderline, but just haven’t lost quite enough games to tip into the seller category.)
Here are the relief pitchers on those teams who would be the best upgrades if they could be obtained by the Nats:
- Koji Uehara, RHP – Red Sox – 39 years old, last year of contract, projected 0.8 WAR for rest of season. Unfortunately, the Red Sox don’t seem that interested in trading Uehara, and apparently plan to offer him a qualifying contract which they expect him to accept. If Mike Rizzo could pull off a trade for Uehara, it was validate his status as a genius.
- Glen Perkins, LHP – Twins – 31 years old, signed through 2017 with option year, projected 0.7 WAR. Unfortunately, the Twins apparently don’t plan to make Perkins available.
- Neal Cotts, LHP – Rangers – 34 years old, last year of contract, projected 0.5 WAR. Finally, we have a good pitcher who might be available. Cotts would be a very nice upgrade to the bullpen.
- Steve Cishek, RHP – Marlins – 28 years old, team control through 2017, projected 0.4 WAR. The Marlins seem to be holding onto their veterans. Apparently they aren’t willing to accept the fact that they are out of the race. It’s been an improbably run for the Fish, but this may be a case where getting hot in late July turns out to be a curse for them, if it misleads them into thinking they can still compete.
- Junichi Tazawa, RHP – Red Sox – 28 years old, team control through 2016, projected 0.4 WAR. The Red Sox won’t be trading Tazawa.
- Jonathan Papelbon, RHP – Phillies – 33 years old, control through 2015 (with option for 2016), $12.5 million/year, projected 0.4 WAR. Could be available (though Phillies may be reluctant to trade within division).
- Joaquin Benoit, RHP – Padres – 37 years old, control through 2015 (with option for 2016), $7.75 million/year, projected 0.4 WAR. Could be traded.
- Andrew Miller, LHP – Red Sox – 29 years old, last year of contract, projected 0.2 WAR. Not a huge upgrade over Detwiler or Blevins, but could be available via trade.
These are the kind of pitchers that should be pursued. I don’t want to hear about trades for Antonio Bastardo or James Russell or Tony Sipp. If you’re going to bother to do a trade, do one that will make a difference.
As the season has gone along and Jerry Blevins’ ERA has crept up (now at 4.71), many Nats fans have expressed disappointment in his performance. As we approach the trade deadline, Jim Bowden, for example, has called on the Nats to trade for a lefty reliever.
Blevins is left-handed specialist (sometimes referred to as a LOOGY). I thought I’d look for other left-handed specialists to compare him to, so I started by searching (via baseball-reference.com) for left handers who have pitched at least 20 innings this season and recorded 2.5 or fewer outs per game. Other than Blevins, I found 22 pitchers matching those criteria.
Of course, because left specialists are expected to face multiple batters or because their opponent substitutes a pinch hitter to regain the platoon advantage, all lefty specialists face quite a few right-handed batters. Of the 22 pitchers, 12 faced more left-handed than right-handed batters. Of the 10 who faced more right handers, six (James Russell, Brett Cecil, Wesley Wright, Alex Torres, Rex Brothers, and Aaron Poreda) either had a reverse platoon differential (measured by opponents’ on-base-plus-slugging) or essentially no platoon differential. I pulled these six out of my sample, which left me with 16 pitchers in my comparison group that fit my criteria for left-handed specialists.
These 16 pitchers on average faced 52% left handed batters, with right handed batters having an OPS of .802 and left handed batters an OPS of .597.
In contrast, right handed batters facing Blevins have had an OPS of .860, but left handers have had an OPS of just .370. Only one of the 16 pitchers I’m comparing him to has a lower OPS by left-handed batters (Randy Choate with .339). There’s nothing wrong, and much that is right, with Blevins when he is facing left handers.
The only problem is that he’s not facing left handers as much as most left-handed specialists. Compared with other left-handed specialists, Matt Williams has not leveraged his platoon advantage especially well, with Blevins facing left handers only 46% of the time. With a pitcher like Blevins, the greatest advantage would come from trying to send him in only when he’ll face at least two lefties. With better match ups, Blevins should be pitching better. Rather than trading for a different lefty, let’s educate our manager on how to use the ones he has.
Today’s the deadline for all-star voting, and the teams will be announced beginning on Sunday. I’d like to put together an all-star team, but don’t know all of the players in the National League as well as I know the Nationals. I want to be fair, which means I want to use a systematic methodology based on statistics. A year ago, I came up with a methodology that I’m happy with.
I won’t go through all the details of the methodology here (you can read the other article if you’re interested), but the main idea is that I give quite a bit of weight to both this season and last season’s performance, plus a little bit of weight to career performance. Most of the dumb all-star selections have been players who hit a hot streak for half a season and were never good again. So I’m not going to select Scooter Gennett or Alfredo Simon just because they’ve been hot for a couple of months. My method does allow for a few exceptional players to make the team based on a single season of play (Billy Hamilton makes my team, and if I were doing an AL team, Masahiro Tanaka would definitely be on it), but generally I’m looking for those who’ve played very well for at least a year and a half.
The teams are mostly based on “points” that are calculated from wins above replacement (WAR), using this formula (in most cases):
Points = 4*2014 WAR + 2*2013 WAR + Square root(Career WAR)
Again, see the other article for details and some special cases.
Here’s my 2014 all-star team (with points shown in parentheses):
National League – Starters
C – Jonathan Lucroy – Brewers (26.4)
1B – Paul Goldschmidt – Diamondbacks (27.9)
2B – Chase Utley – Phillies (26.2)
3B – Matt Carpenter – Cardinals (28.1)
SS – Troy Tulowitzki – Rockies (36.0) – The overall point leader in my system
LF – Carlos Gomez – Brewers (34.1)
CF – Andrew McCutchen – Pirates (35.1)
RF – Giancarlo Stanton – Marlins (28.8)
DH –Freddie Freeman – Braves (22.9)
SP – Clayton Kershaw – Dodgers (33.4)
C – Yadier Molina – Cardinals (25.1)
C – Buster Posey – Giants (21.8)
1B – Joey Votto – Reds (22.8)
1B – Anthony Rizzo – Cubs (17.9) – The Cubs were the only team that required a “special selection” – bumping up a player who wouldn’t otherwise qualify in order to have a player from each team.
2B – Daniel Murphy – Mets (19.6)
3B – Todd Frazier – Reds (23.6)
3B – David Wright – Mets (23.3)
SS – Hanley Ramirez – Dodgers (25.0)
OF – Hunter Pence – Giants (26.8)
OF – Jason Heyward – Braves (23.6)
OF – Justin Upton – Braves (19.6)
OF – Billy Hamilton – Reds (18.6) – Selected because my system requires at least one “true” center fielder in both the starting lineup and as a reserve
DH – Yasiel Puig – Dodgers (23.5)
SP – Adam Wainwright – Cardinals (32.5)
SP – Johnny Cueto – Reds (25.1)
SP – Zack Greinke – Dodgers (21.4)
SP – Jordan Zimmermann – Nationals (20.9)
SP – Cole Hamels – Phillies (20.8)
SP – Bartolo Colon – Mets (20.3)
RP – Craig Kimbrel – Braves (13.3)
RP – Joaquin Benoit – Padres (12.4)
RP – Jonathan Papelbon – Phillies (11.6)
RP – Mark Melancon – Pirates (11.3)
RP – Huston Street – Padres (10.7)
Two players, A.J. Pollock (19.7) and Cliff Lee (22.1), missed my team due to being on the disabled list.
There you have it—Jordan Zimmermann is the only National player who qualifies to be on my all-star team. Several Nats came close—Anthony Rendon (19.5), Jayson Werth (19.5), Ian Desmond (18.9), and Rafael Soriano (10.5). Although the Nats media are lobbying hard for Adam LaRoche (12.5), his poor showing in 2013 ensured that under my system he wouldn’t beat the stiff competition at first base.
It will be interesting to see which Nats are actually selected.