Cliff Lee. David Price. Jordan Zimmerman. Tanner Roark. They share consecutive spots on an important leaderboard, but maybe more importantly for Tanner Roark is that he’s even in the same paragraph to begin with. Since he was released by his college team in 2007, a few signature moments have taught him the tools (and grips) to survive (and thrive) in the big leagues.
The first moment was maybe the biggest. That was the moment the Texas Rangers called and said they wanted him in their system. “Yeah I was very surprised — I was grateful,” Roark admitted before a June game with the Giants. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had released him during winter break, and then for six months, the pitcher “hadn’t even seen any competitive time on the mound.” Just look at the Wikipedia sentences, right there in a row on his page:
Roark played one season with the Southern Illinois Miners of the independent Frontier League in 2008. In 3 games, he was 0-2 with a 21.41 ERA. In just 9.2 innings, he gave up 23 hits along with 25 runs while striking out 11.
Roark was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 25th round of the 2008 Amateur Player Draft
The pitcher himself doesn’t know exactly what they saw. “It was a tough road to go through, I knew I had the stuff, I had the confidence in myself, but when I was in Indy ball I was getting shelled,” he said. But the Rangers called, and then someone got hurt in High-A, he was promoted, and then he was included in a trade to the Nationals.
Standing on a mound with the Nationals one day, Roark had an epiphany. “I just scratched the four-seamer and starting throwing all two-seamers, and it’s been a blessing,” he said of that moment. No mentor, no advice, no meeting with his team — just one reliever trying to make a name for himself and ditching the four-seamer.
“It’s worked for me, worked really well, and I’m trying to use it as much as I can, because my fastball has been always my best pitch,” Roark said about using the two-seamer. Considering that he says he doesn’t throw the four-seamer, we can probably assume that Roark’s 64% fastball usage is all sinker. That means he would top either the two-seamer or sinker leaderboards on our site. So it’s only a quirk in the classifications that makes his 44% ground-ball rate on the pitch a top-30 rate among regularly thrown-fastballs — that number would actually be below-average among two-seamers.
That’s okay, because Roark had another moment that taught him how important command was. “My 2012 year in Triple-A, I was 6-17… That was my best year,” said Roark. Not because of results, because his 4.39 ERA and 1.41 WHIP were actually the worst of his pro career, but because the season was “a mental year.” He learned a lot and the year was important. “For me — Because I knew the stuff was there, and we talked about it, and you can’t control anything else behind you. That’s when I would get in my own head about that, and once you get in your own head, it’s too late,” Roark said of the lessons he learned on the mound in 2012. 33% of his balls in play that year were hits, a career-worst, and probably not his fault.
Since that year ended, Roark has walked a mere 5.4% of the batters he’s faced. Since he joined the major leagues, he’s top 20 in walk rate. The confidence he learned when he cleared his head in 2012 has helped him throw the ball in the zone. “They know there’s a fastball coming in 2-0, 3-1, just, here it is,” he said, “you’ve got seven other guys behind you helping you out.” Learning that was when he “overcame a lot of stuff.”
Particularly important to command in general, and to Roark, is the first pitch strike. “That’s the best pitch,” Roark said of strike one. That’s why he’s a top-ten first-strike guy since he’s come into the league. What happens if he comes up against a lefty that he knows likes to swing at strike one? “You gotta really start it on the outside half of the plate and let it run off — make it look like it’s a strike and then it runs off,” Roark said.
The point is to get a first pitch strike, not to necessarily groove it down broadway. That sort of thinking has allowed Roark to continue getting strike one despite throwing the sinker 67% of the time to open a plate appearance and being known for concentrating on getting ahead with the first pitch.
Command also allows the Nationals’ pitcher to make the most of what is by most accounts an okay sinker. Particularly when it comes to the platoon splits on the pitch. When he’s faced with lefties, Roark knows he’s trying to get it into the hitter “so that I don’t start it somewhere where I leave it right over down the middle where they can rip it.” The solution? “Have to start it pretty much on the front hip and make them get them out of the way and then have it run back over. You have to make sure you get it there, or else it’s going to get hit hard,” Roark admitted.
Roark’s other pitches are good, too, of course. The 15% whiff rate he gets on his curve is 24th among curves that have been thrown more than 250 times since last year, and he rates it as his best non-fastball pitch. “I get it right on the seam and I really torque it on my middle finger and throw the heck out of it,” Roark says of the pitch. It’s a nice pitch to have, too, since the platoon splits on a curve make it a weapon against both hands.
The slider and the change, for the most part, are platoon pitches for him so far this year. According to BrooksBaseball, he’s thrown the slider to lefties 2% of the time, and the change to righties less than 1% of the time. If you look at results split by handedness, both the slider (13% whiffs) and change (14% whiffs) are just below the benchmarks for those pitches. Useful, if not stand out pitches.
They require work, of course.
For the change, it’s just about repetition. A college coach told him that the best way to find his change-up grip was to be natural about it: “Throw the ball up in the air, catch it, throw it. Did it five or six times, and the last one was like, huh?” That grip has stayed with him to this day, but he admits that he’s “definitely struggled” with the pitch that he throws like a two-seamer but lets roll off his middle finger. “The more I throw it in the game, the more the repetition makes it better,” he said. The ground-ball rate on his change is up to 57% from 31% last year, so he’s making progress.
For the slider, the work is situational. Roark is working to find ways to use the pitch against lefties. “I’ve just got to bury it in the back foot,” for the most part, but he’s also been trying to work on going front door to lefties. He wants them to “give up on it on the outside corner.” Adding those two sliders is important — “The scouting report says he only throws these three pitches against right-handers and these three against lefties. I have four pitches for a reason, so I have to use all four,” Roark said.
June sixth this year, Tanner Roark pitched the game of his life. He threw eight shut-out three-hit innings against the Padres, with 11 strikeouts and no walks. Remembering that game brought his trademarked humble smile back, and an appreciation of what was going right that day. “I felt like I had my best command I’ve had, I felt like I was getting ahead of guys 0-1 and I had them on their heels, in defense mode right off the bat,” he said. “Then after that I could utilize my changeup, slider, curveball.”
Roark isn’t done working — he remembers those days pitching for the Miners too well to stand pat. But he knows two things that he can build off of. One is that his two-seamer and curve are major league quality. The other? “The money pitch in baseball is strike one.”
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.