The career of Tanner Roark has been something out of a movie. He initially struggled as a minor leaguer in the Texas Rangers’ organization, was a bit of an afterthought in an uninspiring trade deadline move, and didn’t break into the major leagues until after his 26th birthday.
Roark then established himself as a dominant starting pitcher with outstanding seasons in 2014 and 2016. He embarked on his age-30 season this year fresh off a top-10 finish in the NL Cy Young voting and an appearance in the World Baseball Classic.
This 2017 campaign, however, didn’t go according to plan. Roark was ineffective from the start, posting a 5.27 ERA and 1.450 WHIP in 100.2 innings prior to the All-Star Break. He struggled with both home runs and walks, only making it through the seventh inning four times.
Since the All-Star Break, things have slowly started to get better for Roark. In six starts, he owns a 3.13 ERA and 1.152 WHIP and has already tossed seven innings in a game twice. With a hat tip to Brooks Baseball, it’s evident Roark is taking a different approach.
In the first half, Roark threw his sinker 41.6% of the time. That number was down about 8% from his career average, but in line with his decline of using the pitch every season since his career began. Since the second half began, however, Roark’s sinker has made up just 24.4% of his total pitches.
That’s a massive drop off in usage for a pitch he’s relied on so heavily in his career. In place of his sinker, Roark is using more fastballs, curveballs and changeups. He’s been able to make hitters guess more often (evidenced by his 4% uptick in strikeouts) and keep the ball off the barrel of the bat (7% decrease in hard-hit balls).
“He had a very good curveball,” Dusty Baker told reporters after a win over the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 11. “He took something off it, which makes it hard to judge the speed and stay on it, and he spotted his fastball well, and so he was dealing.”
Roark’s bread and butter has always been weak groundballs, and despite his early struggles he still owns a top-20 groundball rate among qualified starters. While his numbers have yet to return to those of his impressive 2016 campaign, his strong second half is something to take notice of.
With his new approach, there’s still hope for him to round out the back end of the Nats’ rotation in the playoffs.