Much like his stuff on the mound, Tanner Roark’s origin story is one that comes out of nowhere. Originally a collegiate pitcher at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, grades forced him out before being drafted and he spent a year in the Independent Leagues. He was eventually drafted by the Rangers in the 25th round with no fanfare. After a couple of solid seasons in the minors, he was dealt to the Nationals for Cristian Guzman in 2010. The Transaction Analysis from that deal makes clear how he was regarded, as his section concluded by saying, “He's a longshot to ever establish himself in the big leagues.”
Roark would remain in Washington’s farm system and eventually make his major-league debut in the summer of 2013. He was surprisingly effective shifting between the rotation and the bullpen that year, pitching to a shiny 1.51 ERA over 53 2/3 innings. He would stay a starter for the entirety of 2014, and once again pitched well as he finished with a 2.85 ERA. Then, 2015 saw a step back for Roark. He wasn’t able to stay in a consistent role, as a revamped Nationals rotation forced him into a swingman position. He threw 111 innings and finished with a lackluster 4.38 ERA. Looking to stay in the rotation all year in 2016, Roark sought to prove that his first two seasons were not a fluke, despite what his prospect pedigree would suggest.
What Went Right in 2016
Well, he proved his point. Most everything went right for Roark last season, which was his best as a professional. At the head of his success, once again, was his run prevention. Although the peripherals have never totally backed up his ability to limit runs, it’s become a staple of his success in the majors. In 2016, he rebounded from an off year by posting a 2.83 ERA over 210 innings that included just one relief appearance. Although his FIP was unimpressive, he posted a DRA- that was better than average for the first time over a full season. Between that, the sub-3.00 ERA and the fact that he was able to top the 200 inning plateau, it was Roark’s best year.
Part of the reason he’s able to have so much success despite lackluster stuff is his ability to induce weak contact. He brought that in a big way in 2016, highlighted by his 51 percent ground ball rate. It was the highest mark of his career, and went a long way towards limiting opponents to just 0.7 home runs per nine innings after posting a rate of 1.4 in 2015. Roark also used these ground balls to get out of tough situations, finishing the year with the fifth highest double play percentage among all pitchers with at least 150 innings. All in all, between the lack of hard contact and Washington’s defense, Roark held opponents to a .269 BABIP.
To go along with the weak contact, Roark also upped his strikeout total a bit last year. While this will never be his calling card, he was a lot more respectable in 2016 as he struck out 20 percent of the batters he faced. His career rate prior to last season was just under 17 percent. The key was relying less on his sinker and slider while putting more focus on his fastball, changeup and curveball. The changeup in particular was an important pitch, as it’s always produced high whiff and ground ball rates. That was no different in 2016.
What Went Wrong in 2016
It’s hard to find much that went wrong for Roark in 2016, at least compared to expectations. Sure, you’d love to see more strikeouts from someone in your fantasy rotation, but you weren’t really expecting that when you put him on your roster. He actually outperformed your expectations, most likely.
Where Roark did disappoint was in WHIP, where he posted a 1.17 mark despite the low BABIP he allowed. This is because he lost the great control he showed off early in his career, walking more than eight percent of his opponents in 2016. The issue was simple: He kept missing the strike zone. His zone rate was a career-low 47 percent and he also induced swings on pitches out of the zone at a career-low rate. That’s a bad combination. This is likely a tradeoff from his increased strikeout rate.
What to Expect in 2017
Roark is a really interesting pitcher heading into this coming season, as he’s checked off so many boxes that most didn’t expect him to hit. He’s become a respectable strikeout pitcher and he’s shown the ability to last all season with a full workload. After his success in 2016, he’ll be firmly entrenched in the rotation this year. Although he still has a limited ceiling, he’s an intriguing option for the back of your fantasy rotation if you’re looking for a safe selection for a cheap price.
The Great Beyond
For long-term leagues, Roark’s value is entirely dependent on where you are in your contention cycle. Although he’s only been around for a few years, he’s entering his age-30 season. The back-half of his career his here. With that being said, if you’re window is open for the next few seasons, Roark can be a stable force that will come at a relatively cheap price. That’s not easy to find in dynasty leagues. There is some real downside here, though, as his skill set provides him with a small margin for error. There’s the possibility of a rapid decline earlier than expected, but his presumed price in a trade would be worth that risk.
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