In the last two weeks I've received four emails from people asking about Washington Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark. Here's the most recent one, but the others were similar.
I picked up Nats pitcher Tanner Roark in a Dynasty League last winter and that's worked out really well. I don't remember him being much of a prospect but he's doing GREAT. What was he like as a prospect and should I hold onto him long-term? Can you do a Prospect Retro for him?---Doug B., Rancho Cordova, California
Well Doug, that certainly has worked out well for you. Roark is 11-6, 2.74 through 21 starts with a 103/29 K/BB in 135 innings. He has a 2.4 fWAR, which ranks 31st among big league starters this year. And you're right, he was not considered a hot prospect when he was in the minors, so let's figure out what's going on here.
Roark pitched college ball at the University of Illinois but was not particularly successful: in 2007 for example he posted a 4.55 ERA in 83 innings with an unattractive set of component ratios, 46/33 K/BB with 102 hits allowed. By 2008 he was pitching for the Southern Illinois Minors in the independent Frontier League, but Rangers scouts saw something they liked and he was drafted in the 25th round that spring after making just three indy starts.
He performed well in A-ball, posting a 2.70 ERA with a 91/27 K/BB in 87 innings for Bakersfield in 2009. He didn't show up on many prospect lists however, due an 86-88 MPH fastball that scouts questioned for higher levels. The Rangers moved him up to Double-A Frisco in 2010 and he pitched adequately, with a 4.20 ERA and a 75/33 K/BB in 105 innings with 113 hits. He was traded to the Nationals late that summer for Christian Guzman.
I saw and charted one of his Frisco starts and he showed good secondary pitches with a fastball averaging 87 MPH. However, he did hit 91 five times in that game. I wrote this report on him for my 2011 book:
The Nationals picked up Tanner Roark from the Rangers last year for Christian Guzman. His fastball isn’t especially fast at 86-88 MPH, though I did see him hit 91 a few times in a start for Frisco. He mixes in a curveball and changeup, both solid, and he throws strikes. He adapted well to Double-A last year, the hardest test for a finesse pitcher, and he’s shown the flexibility and adaptability to pitch in any role. Roark may be just a Quadruple-A guy, but he’s earned a shot at higher levels and could end up seeing major league action in ’11 if the quarks dance properly. "Tanner Roark" sounds like a cartoonish hero from a bloated Ayn Rand novel. Grade C.
Roark pitched for Double-A Harrisburg in 2011 (4.69 ERA, 92/39 K/BB in 117 innings, 125 hits) and for Triple-A Syracuse in 2012 (4.39 ERA, 130/47 K/BB in 148 innings, 161 hits). Entering 2013 he really looked like a Quadruple-A pitcher: he threw strikes and ate innings, but gave up a lot of hits, didn't throw especially hard, and wasn't ranked highly on anyone's prospect list.
Now, if you dig really deep into the reports, you will find a few mentions that his velocity began to tick up in 2012; he was working more commonly at 88-92 rather than 86-88. However, since the overall statistics didn't change much, nobody noticed except a few people who follow the Nationals farm system really closely.
In 2013 that went up another notch, up to 89-95, averaging 92. This velocity gain resulted in a large leap forward in Triple-A performance (3.15 ERA, 84/20 K/BB in 106 innings for Syracuse, 85 hits) and great numbers in a major league trial (1.51 ERA, 40/11 K/BB in 54 innings, 38 hits).
Given the out-of-contextness it was easy to assume he was a fluke entering '14, but he's been in the rotation all year and is still pitching well. He has lost a little bit off the fastball this year, 87-94 averaging 91, but his slider, curve, and change remain effective and the whole package plays up due to his control. Spring reports about mechanical refinements leading to improved control of his two-seamer look like one key, but the simple fact remains that he is throwing harder than he used to.
As noted when I saw him for Frisco back in '10, the potential for better velocity was always there; he would bump it up occasionally. I wish we had a video breakdown so we could see if there was a mechanical difference, so we could compare what he's doing today to what he was doing four years ago; I'm sure the Nationals have that data.
Can he sustain it? I don't know! I'd like to think so: I love it when guys like this come out of nowhere. It will be interesting to see what happens if he loses another tick off the fastball.
I take Roark as a reminder that the cliche "pitchers are unpredictable" works both ways: the brilliant prospects often flame out and disappoint us, but sometimes a guy like Roark makes an adjustment and everything falls into place, at least for a while.
Never waste a draft pick!