Tanner Roark is baseball’s reigning king of the called strike

brushback_harperTanner Roark earned an unusual, incredible statistical distinction in his rookie season. Last year, hitters swung at 54.8 percent of the pitches he threw in the strike zone, according to FanGraphs. Alone, that means nothing. With context, it amazes. In 2013, no pitcher who threw at least 50 innings coerced hitters to take a greater percentage of pitches in the strike zone than Roark. “I never noticed,” Roark said. “That’s a cool stat.”

Roark’s penchant for called strikes served as one of the hidden keys to his success. He came out of nowhere and punched up a 7-1 record and a 1.51 ERA. He will surely regress from those heights, but his performance launched him into the competition for the Nationals’ fifth starter spot. Manager Matt Williams will decided between him and Taylor Jordan in the next two days.

Roark’s called-strike exploits may only be statistical noise gleaned from a small sample size. (Among qualified pitchers, coincidentally, Doug Fister led the majors at 56.5 percent.) But it seems more likely the number of called strikes Roark earned revealed something about his style. Trained eyes could tell his stuff confused hitters. “Guys got a lot of bad takes against him,” Jayson Werth told Boz for one his recent columns.

Last year, Roark began throwing his two-seam fastball with great effectiveness and frequency. From the pitcher’s perspective, the pitch moves down and left-to-right. He improved the movement and control of the pitch. Against right-handed hitters, he could start the pitch outside the plate and make it dart over the corner. To lefties, he would throw the pitch at their hip and watch it swing back over the plate.

“It’s deceiving,” Roark said. “I feel like I’m getting better late movement, because my mechanics have gotten better. I’m just staying through the ball well. Also, I’ve become more educated about the game, watching hitters, how they react to certain pitches. That’s a big thing, too.”

Roark also developed a feel for changing his delivery. From the stretch especially, Roark can vary his motion. On some pitches, Roark takes a particularly quick step to disrupt a hitter’s timing. The ball seems to surprise the hitter — by the time he wants to swing, it has already gone over the plate, another strike Roark earned without resistance.

FROM THE POST

Adam LaRoche is baseball’s biggest gadfly, James Wagner writes.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Jordan leaves last impression

Young may be dealt

McCatty on Storen, Soriano

Nats cut Treinen

Harper aiming for OBP

MATT WILLIAMS’S QUOTE OF THE DAY

“162 first innings are one ninth of a season (18 games), teams that score first win.”

DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY

6

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Taylor Jordan states his case as Matt Williams mulls decision