Tanner Roark Fools Hitters

Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark continues to prove the doubters wrong. In fairness, for a long time, it didn’t seem like Roark would turn into much. After toiling in the minor-leagues, and putting up average numbers, something changed in 2013. Roark’s numbers took a turn for the better, earning him a call-up to the majors at age-26. While his performance was impressive, none of it seemed sustainable. His peripherals were good, but his stuff didn’t seem overwhelming, and he only tossed 53 2/3 innings, most out of the pen. Even the Nationals seemed unsure about Roark, putting him in a competition for the fifth starter spot in spring training. Doug Fister‘s injury may have given Roark a job by default to begin the season, but he’s done more than enough to prove he belongs in the majors.

One of the biggest question marks surrounding Roark was his amazing ability to fool hitters. Roark’s 54.8% Z-Swing was actually the lowest in the majors last season among pitchers with at least 50 innings. That means hitters took more pitches in the strike zone against Roark than any other pitcher in the majors. Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post explained in March that Roark’s improved command of his two-seam fastball may have played a big role in last year’s success.

There were some legitimate questions about whether this would hold up. For one, Roark was new to the majors, and it usually takes teams a while to develop accurate scouting reports on players. On top of that, it was only 50 innings, so luck may have played a role. Roark could have been getting more calls from umpires. Given that his stuff isn’t overwhelming, it seemed too suspicious that he consistently fooled hitters.

The thing is, he’s doing it again. Hitters are swinging more often at Roark’s pitches in the strike zone, but it’s still fairly low compared to the rest of the league. Roark’s 60.5% Z-Swing ranks ninth among qualified pitchers this season. Again, the two-seamer has been his biggest weapon. The pitch induced swings 44.94% last year. That figure has dropped to just 39.84% in 2014, courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net. Not surprisingly, his whiff rate on the pitch remains low. That doesn’t matter as much in this instance, as Roark has shown he can confuse hitters with the offering as long as he locates well. Despite the low whiff rates, Roark still uses his sinker with two strikes 50% of the time against lefties and 49% of the time against righties. The pitch has been responsible for 33 of Roark’s strikeouts this season, which suggests hitters continue to be fooled when facing him.

His approach with the two-seamer actually hasn’t changed all that much. Against left-handers, he tends to try and bury the pitch outside, either hoping to hit the corner, or induce a chase. He’s been all over the board against right-handers, though it seems he’s been more willing to throw inside this year. He’s mixed in his change and curve a little more to help keep hitters off balance, but he’s mostly using the same approach with his two-seamer.

There’s a tendency to look at guys with Roark’s pedigree and assume the other shoe will drop. In many cases, it does. For Roark, though, it speaks to his ability to locate one pitch really well. The overall package may not seem impressive, but the ability to confuse hitters certainly plays a role in a pitcher’s ability to succeed. Instead of focusing on the things Roark doesn’t do, maybe it’s time to appreciate him finding a way to defy the odds.

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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

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There was a detailed community blog post by mkcaptain (link below) about Roark’s low zone swing rates last year. Not as low this year but still low, and his contact rates have decreased a bit and swinging strike rate increased a bit to compensate. Two great outings against the Padres helps, but he hasn’t had many bad outings.