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The Nationals "battle" between Gio and Roark

It seems clear that Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann will be starting in the postseason. It appears to be a near certainty that Doug Fister will also be in the rotation. After Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark pitched this past week against the Mets, both pitchers have made their closing arguments. Who wins? Why?

Gio Gonzalez completely took over Thursday's Game 2 against the Mets. His ability to dominate is just one of the reasons that he deserves the final rotation spot in October.
Gio Gonzalez completely took over Thursday's Game 2 against the Mets. His ability to dominate is just one of the reasons that he deserves the final rotation spot in October.
H.Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports

My intention was to include this with my other Friday morning article.  In order to lighten the load on your eyes, I've split them into two separate articles.

Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez each made what figures to be their final start of the season in this past series with the Mets.  Both made strong statements, showing what they bring to the table.  Let's start by examining each of the starts and how they played to each pitcher's strength.  Hey... You'll even get to see me make up some statistics!

Tanner Roark
  • 6.1 IP, 5 H, 0 BB, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 K vs. Mets
Roark's trademark is his consistency.  His 21 Quality Starts rank third on the club behind Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann (each have 23).  Since Quality Starts (which technically constitute a 4.50 ERA) aren't necessarily good starts, let's take that a step further and see who has allowed 2 runs (not earned runs, since those aren't all created equally) or fewer and gone at least 6 innings the most often.  I'm not feeling too creative, so let's just call it a Super Quality Start:

Player GS Super QS SQS%
Doug Fister 24 14 58.3%
Tanner Roark 31 17 54.8%
Jordan Zimmermann 31 17 54.8%
Stephen Strasburg 33 17 51.5%
Gio Gonzalez 26 12 46.2%

I've included their total games started and their SQS% because we should probably expect for Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Roark (who have been healthy all season) to have a higher quantity of Super Quality Starts than Gio or Fister.  Regardless, Roark has been as consistently good as any starter on the Nationals.  He ties Jordan Zimmermann for the second highest percentage of Super Quality Starts.

This held true in his start against the Mets on Tuesday.  He certainly wasn't dominant.  In fact, quite a few balls were hit hard and he struck out just one batter.  He did continue to pound the zone and deliver one final SQS for the season, though.

Gio Gonzalez
  • 7.0 IP, 1 H, 2 BB, 0 R, 12 K vs. Mets
The potential to dominate is perhaps Gio's greatest edge over Roark.  While he doesn't bring quite the consistency to the table that Roark does, he possesses more of an ability to overpower hitters.  Since we showed a nice little table to support Roark, let's see if we can find something similar to support Gio.  We're going to define a "Gem" as a pitcher not allowing a single run (earned or unearned.... again, not all unearned runs are created equally).  We'll stick with the 6 inning qualifier because he has to at least go deep into the ballgame:

Player GS Gems Gem %
Gio Gonzalez 26 6 23.1%
Doug Fister 24 5 20.8%
Jordan Zimmermann 31 6 19.4%
Tanner Roark 31 5 16.1%
Stephen Strasburg 33 4 12.1%

Gio delivered one on Thursday night, thoroughly dominating the Mets.  He was so good Thursday that there wasn't really any point in the game where it looked like the Mets had a chance to beat him.  Come playoff time, when the competition is trimmed down to the top ten teams in baseball, this is what you want out of your starting pitcher.  You want a starter with the ability to flat out take over a game.  Why?  The opposing team is also likely to be throwing a great starting pitcher every night.  A really good (SQS) start isn't going to be as likely to get the job done.

Anyway, let's not focus too much on their final starts of the year.  This isn't even a competition if both pitchers haven't been pitching well... and they have.  Among problems the Nats could have heading into the playoffs, this seems to be a great one to have.  Apart from the silly made up SQS vs. Gems argument, let's break down who should have the final spot and why.

Quick Focus on the times when Gio Gonzalez has struggled this season

This is my lead-in to how I'm making my decision.  Gio Gonzalez hit the disabled list with shoulder fatigue in late May.  In his two starts leading up to the DL stint, Gio allowed 12 runs in 7.1 innings.  While he actually came back strong (3 "Gems" in 4 starts), he seemed to hit the wall in his fifth start back from the disabled list.  His command started slipping.  He started throwing the curveball less (and less effectively).  In five starts from July 10 to August 5, he would allow four runs or more three times.... He also had a start against Milwaukee where he allowed just three runs but couldn't get out of the fourth inning.

Based on his performance in late August and September, he's put those troubles behind him.

September Performance

Gio Gonzalez 5 32.2 21 5 31 11 9 1 2.48 0.80
Tanner Roark 4 25.2 23 2 14 7 7 2 2.45 0.97

Let me start by saying how amazing both pitchers have been in September.  No matter how you slice it, that's phenomenal production from the Nationals fourth and fifth starters.  To be honest, most teams would love to get that type of production out of their first and second starters.

Why I'm on #TeamGio (Hashbrowns, you're welcome Patrick!)

If the two had been neck and neck heading into Thursday night, Gio Gonzalez threw down a gauntlet in his final regular season start.  I wouldn't really say that I've ever considered them neck and neck, though.  My feeling heading into Thursday's start was that it was Gio's spot to lose.... a bad outing could have given #TeamRoark (once again) a stronger case.  Gio was brilliant, though!  There are three primary reasons that it's always been Gio's spot to lose in my eyes, and you've heard them before.

1) Workloads

Before I make an argument involving Tanner Roark's workload as an argument for Gio Gonzalez earning that final spot, let me get this out of the way.  There is no logical argument against Tanner Roark being in the postseason rotation. He's absolutely earned it.  The problem is that the Nationals have five pitchers who have earned those four spots.  Now, to the obvious elephant in the room.

Tanner Roark had never thrown more than 159.1 innings in any professional season prior to 2014.  After Tuesday's typically steady outing against the Mets, Roark has thrown 198.2 innings this season.  We haven't seen any major effects due to that increased workload to this point, but it's possible that general fatigue gets to him at some point during the postseason.  Moving him to the bullpen would help lighten that workload.

Gio Gonzalez has actually had a lighter workload than usual because of the shoulder fatigue that he dealt with earlier this season.  Seeing as how he appears to have put that shoulder fatigue behind him, making a few more starts in the postseason shouldn't be a burden.

2) Experience (Both as a starter and in the playoffs)

Those of you who have been reading my work supporting the idea of possibly carrying Steven Souza or Michael Taylor on the roster know that it's weird for me to play the experience card.  This is why I'm including their histories as starting pitchers.  It (again) goes back to the workload.  Part of the reason that Roark hasn't encountered this large of a workload in his professional career is that this is only the fifth season since turning pro where he's predominantly been a starting pitcher.  In fact, this is just the second season (2011 in AA) where he hasn't made at least one of his appearances out of the bullpen.  Again, it seems reasonable to believe that this workload might catch up to him at some point.

The fact that Gio has made two postseason starts to Roark's zero appearances carries a little weight as well, though it's my belief that talent trumps experience.  Experience, however, can be a nice tiebreaker when making a decision between two players who are fairly evenly matched.  I consider them to be fairly evenly matched.

3) Versatility

Roark's versatility is another big key for my reasoning.  Based on the fact that Roark spent a lot of time pitching out of the bullpen just last season, we know that he can bring that different mentality that a reliever needs to have.  We know that he did a fine job just last year handling the shorter warmup time.  We know that Roark can deal with the possibility that he might have to get ready at a moment's notice.  We just don't know that with Gio.  Why?

Gio Gonzalez last pitched out of the bullpen in 2009.  He's made seven appearances out of the bullpen in his professional (not just major league [6].. professional) career.  If the Nats were to ship Gio to the bullpen and use Roark as a starter, there's no guarantee that he'd be able to handle the subtle differences with his warmup routine.  Pundits will point to the fact that Jordan Zimmermann threw a dominant inning out of the bullpen just two years ago, but it really is a difficult adjustment to make.  We know that won't be an issue for Roark.  We don't with Gio.

There is no real winner/loser

This doesn't mean that it's a demotion for Roark. This doesn't mean that he's not a key part of everything that the Nats are going to do for (hopefully) the next four and a half weeks.  This is how the Nationals will make the best use of those two roster spots for the postseason.  They should give the rotation spot to the pitcher more likely to throw a dominant start (Gio) who doesn't have a known comfort zone in the bullpen (Gio).  Roark will be a useful asset in the bullpen.