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August 7, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

Tanner Roark’s remarkable first year

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.

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