It wasn’t the cannonball many fans hoped for, but the Reds finally made an offseason splash by dealing for former Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark last Wednesday.
No, Roark won’t instantly turn the Reds’ starting rotation from a glaring weakness to a strength. But he does provide stability and experience the group needs. For the low price of Tanner Rainey, a reliever with a big arm who struggles to throw strikes, the move was likely an easy one for Dick Williams and company.
Why the Reds made the deal
The affordable price tag aside, the move made sense on multiple fronts for the Reds. The first, and most obvious, is his ability to stay healthy and pitch deep into games consistently.
Roark spent his entire six-year career in Washington, where he was overshadowed by bigger names such as Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. He still provided plenty of value as the No. 5 starter, earning the highly sought-after “innings eater” tag. The right-hander threw at least 180 innings in each of the last two seasons and tossed 198 in 2014. He largely pitched in relief the season in between.
In 2018, he made it through the sixth inning in 21 of 30 starts. As a team, the Reds got only 53 such outings from their starters. Only one team was worse: the Rays, who used a reliever to open a large portion of their games. Baseball is trending away from innings eaters in general, and teams are finding success by leaning heavily on their bullpens. Look no further than the division rival Brewers for evidence of that. But not all teams are built for that approach. Barring a surprise signing of Craig Kimbrel, Cincinnati doesn’t and won’t have a bullpen as talented as Milwaukee.
Roark’s dependability makes for a valuable addition to a Reds rotation that has lacked continuity as much as it’s struggled to keep runs off the scoreboard. For reference, only two Cincinnati pitchers have reached the 180-inning plateau since the team dealt Johnny Cueto away: Anthony DeSclafani in 2015 and Dan Straily in 2016. Only one pitcher (Luis Castillo in 2018) even made it to 150 innings in the last two seasons. Even if there’s more work to do, the Reds took a step toward fixing that problem.
The trade also gives the Reds a middle-of-the-rotation arm without making the multi-year commitment a pitcher like Matt Harvey is likely seeking. Roark is in the final year of his rookie deal and projects to earn $9.8 million in arbitration. While that’s not exactly pocket change for a No. 4 starter, it beats potentially paying a guaranteed $20 million or more to Harvey or a similar veteran pitcher.
Aside from the ability to simply take the ball every five days, what else can we expect from Roark?
You won’t see flashy stuff or gaudy strikeout numbers, but he misses enough bats to get by. For his career, the right-hander holds a 19.0% strikeout rate — below average but not by enough to kill him. Over the last three seasons, he bumped up that percentage from his early days (20.2%). The strikeout numbers stay in line with his raw ability to miss bats (career 8.6% swinging strike rate) and force batters to swing at bad pitches (career 30.2% chase rate). Although Roark’s walk rate has jumped a bit as his strikeouts have in the last three seasons, it’s nothing to get overly concerned about (7.8%).
Pitchers who find success despite not missing many bats usually have one key trait: limiting hard contact. In 2018, Roark allowed an average exit velocity of 87.2 mph. Among 139 pitchers with a minimum of 300 batted ball events, that ranked 45th. His soft-contact rate of 20.0% was 14th among 57 qualified starting pitchers and put him in the company of J.A. Happ (20.5%), Justin Verlander (20.1%), and Kyle Freeland (20.0%).
That ability is especially important for a pitcher who doesn’t generate many ground balls. After three straight years of forcing grounders better than the league-average pitcher, Roark managed a 40.7% ground-ball rate in 2018. Fortunately, his 37.6% fly-ball rate was somewhat offset by a 10.7% infield-popup rate, his highest since 2014. He wasn’t immune to the long ball, though. He allowed a career-high 24 home runs in 2018 and is giving up just north of one dinger per nine innings the last two years. That number figures to go up in Great American Ball Park, particularly if his ground-ball rate stays down.
Roark’s bread and butter is throwing inside, as he put it on the day of the trade:
“I’m excited to go in there and do my thing and just attack, attack, attack.”
That’s a smart strategy when 61% of your pitches are fastballs. The sinker is far and away Roark’s go-to pitch. It gets plenty of ground balls at its best, though Roark struggled to get grounders with the offering in 2018. The pitch looks quite similar to a Tyler Mahle fastball, getting a lot of horizontal movement that can prove especially tricky to lefties when located well.
Tanner Roark, Nasty 93mph Two Seamer. ? pic.twitter.com/oHAzxnfmg5
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 26, 2018
He also mixes in a four-seamer and, on rare occasions, a cutter. Neither is a particularly flashy pitch. He doesn’t light up the radar gun, averaging 91 mph on his heaters while topping out at 95.
Roark’s breaking balls bring a bit more intrigue. The slider was his best pitch for whiffs in 2018 and has generated a 15.4% swinging-strike rate for his career (15.5% in 2018). He throws it almost exclusively to righties (89% of his sliders in 2018 were against right-handers), burying the pitch down and away to generate weak contact and whiffs.
Tanner Roark, nasty 87mph Slider (release/movement). ? pic.twitter.com/PQ76ts4YUn
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 15, 2017
Roark’s curveball is his most aesthetically pleasing pitch. He prefers to throw it versus lefties, although he’ll use it plenty against right-handers too. The pitch gets a ton of drop — it averaged nearly 10 inches of vertical movement last year — which makes its low whiff rate (13.9% career) surprising. In 2017, he had that number up to 16.9%, but it fell back to 13.8% last year. He does, however, get a ton of chases on the pitch. Batters swung at curves outside the strike zone 40.8% of the time in 2018.
Tanner Roark, Nasty 77mph Curveball. ? pic.twitter.com/Oy8zRTze0K
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 25, 2018
Inconsistent command keeps the curveball from becoming an elite pitch. He’ll leave it over the heart of the plate from time to time, and it resulted in four homers allowed last season. Below, you can see the difference in the pitch’s location between 2017 (left) and ’18 (right) — the increase in mistakes up in the zone is evident:
Roark mixes in a changeup as well. It boasted a whiff rate bordering on elite in 2017 (19.6%) but fell off the map in 2018 (11.4%). The pitch was always reliable for him before last year, but it was rated among the worst in the game in 2018 according to FanGraphs pitch value. The pitch had almost identical horizontal movement and more drop in 2018, but hitters were less inclined to offer at it outside the strike zone. The change’s chase rate fell from an incredible 46.7% in 2017 to a pedestrian 34.3% in 2018. Perhaps the increased vertical movement helped hitters identify it better. It’ll be interesting to see if pitching coach Derek Johnson can help Roark revitalize the changeup.
Roark isn’t flashy. His starts aren’t always must-watch affairs. He’s a one-year rental. He’ll have some bad games. But he’s more valuable than the Scott Feldmans of the world and makes more sense for the Reds than signing an aging free-agent pitcher to a multi-year contract. Roark has some intriguing pitches to work with and could become a true steal if Johnson can work the same magic he did in Milwaukee. Even if Roark doesn’t return to a three-win pitcher like he was in 2014 and ’16, his ability to give the Reds consistent innings will prove valuable.