Ruled academically ineligible and dismissed from the University of Illinois before his senior season in 2008, Tanner Roark turned to independent ball in the hope that he could remain on scouts’ radars as that June’s MLB Draft approached.
He struggled while pitching for the Frontier League’s Southern Illinois Miners, however, giving up 23 hits and 25 runs (23 ER) in three starts and 9 2⁄3 innings pitched (that’s a 21.41 ERA).
He was drafted though, by the Texas Rangers, who took him with the 753rd overall pick in the 25th Round of the ‘08 Draft.
He went 24-10 with a 3.47 ERA in 75 games and 32 starts in the Rangers’ system before he was included in a July 2010 trade to the Washington Nationals, after Jay Robertson, who worked for the Rangers before joining the Nats’ front office, recommended Roark when the two teams discussed a potential deal for veteran infielder Cristian Guzman that summer.
In 93 career starts since his MLB debut with the Nationals in 2013, Roark had a (43-27) record before tonight’s matchup with the Rangers in the nation’s capital, with a 3.16 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 2.39 BB/9, 6.64 K/9 and a .238/.299/.354 line against in 575 2⁄3 innings as a starter in the majors.
Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo talked about Roark in an MLB Network Radio interview last May as a success for the entire organization, the scouts who “found” him in the Rangers’ system and the player development people who developed him after the trade.
"Tanner Roark is an extremely good story for scouting and player development," Rizzo said.
"Our professional scouts, Jay Robertson in particular, and our scouting department identified him in a trade that we made a while back.
It was a low-level trade with Cristian Guzman and got ourselves two good arms that we really liked and player development has really allowed this kid to step to the next level.
“He's a very confident pitcher on the mound. He's got four good pitches. He's not a soft-tossing, command-only guy. He can run it up to 94-95 if he has to. He pitches at 90-92, 93 with his sinker, but his command has really separated him from the pack in our organization and he's a guy that can really pitch to four quadrants of the plate with four pitches and on any given day can really go out there and handcuff some good-hitting ball clubs."
"He's been a great story for us and a really good scouting and player development story in general."
Roark was set to make his second career start (and first since 2014) against the Rangers tonight in the series opener in Nationals Park, after holding Texas to one run on seven hits in a loss back in 2014.
Nats’ skipper Dusty Baker talked before tonight’s outing about the long road Roark took to get to where he is today and what the perseverance told him about the 30-year-old righty.
“I think it’s a heck of a story,” Baker said. “I didn’t really know the story until I kind of sat down and talked to him, and then I guess out of college he had gone into the independent league, which I think gives a lot of kids some hope that weren’t drafted — we have the draft coming up here starting Monday — it just shows you sometimes the whole world is wrong about you, and you have to have total confidence in yourself in order to get that far — and the love of the game — because he could have gone to work too, you know, it didn’t look like he was going to make it, so I’ve got to commend him.”
In 2015, the year before Baker joined the Nationals in 2016, Roark (who won 15 games the previous season - 2014) was relegated to relief work out of the bullpen when the Nationals’ Max Scherzer signing bumped him from a crowded rotation.
“When I took this job, I told him I didn’t understand why he won 15 and the next year he wasn’t starting,” Baker said, “but I didn’t know that they had signed Max that year, and I told him, I said, ‘Hey what would you rather do?
“Would you rather relieve or start?’ and he said he’d rather start and I said, ‘Tell the world that and we’re going to give you every opportunity to start.’”
As for Roark’s long journey to the Nationals’ rotation and what it tells him about the type of person Roark is and his determination?
“Well it says something about the pitcher that he is,” Baker said.
“This is nothing compared to what he’s gone through to get here, that’s what it tells me and it tells me that he has total confidence. He doesn’t care what your opinion is, he doesn’t care about the naysayers or the experts say about him.
“He’s the example for everybody, whether it’s a ballplayer trying to be a ballplayer, or a person in the working world that’s told that they’re not that good or that smart or that anything, that’s what it says to me about Tanner.”