Washington Nationals’ Tanner Roark doesn’t blow away opponents; he just gets them out

Thomas Boswell
Columnist April 26

As Tanner Roark took the mound in the ninth inning to try to finish his shutout of the San Diego Padres, the PA system cranked his walk-up music, the chill-up-the-spine rocker “Stranglehold.” A crowd of 31,590 stood at Nats Park for a 27-year-old late-bloomer, drafted in the 25th round, whom any team in baseball could have claimed 18 months ago for $50,000 — broken bat money. No one did.

Now, it looks like Washington, a team that hasn’t always maxed out its talent, has flat out stolen one.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Three outs later, Roark, who had never pitched a shutout (and only one complete game) in his six years and 99 starts in the minors, had a 4-0 win on a three-hitter with just 105 pitches. With eight strikeouts, he never let the Padres breathe. As has been clear for a while now, Roark has a stranglehold on a rotation spot. And he might be there quite a while.

“I love the way he pitches,” ex-Nat pitcher Livan Hernandez said, sitting in the clubhouse where he’s an all-purpose, all-topic counselor, including to Roark. “He’s tough. He works hard. He wants to be here a long time. He knows how to pitch, and he’s got a big heart. It’s never too late to start.”

Roark has four pitches — sinker, slider, change-up and a curveball of multiple speeds, including very slow — that are all good enough to continue to be effective if he continues to command them, and pitch with his current boldness. He’s a sophisticated taste on a staff of Big Arms. He saved his only 93-mph fastball of the game for his next-to-last pitch, and he ended the game by fanning the Padres cleanup hitter — chasing up and away — on just his third 92-mph pitch. He often saves that slow, slow curve at 71 mph for the third time he faces a hitter. Yes, he’s got moxie.

Then, after he has pitched well once again, Roark stands at his locker with a calm but ever-so-slightly amazed look on his face, as though he knows this dream he’s living is true, but he doesn’t know quite what to say because, “I just don’t want to jinx myself.”

He’s good. But this good? Two years ago, he went 6-17 in Class AAA. He says he learned to control his emotions better and scrapped his four-seam fastball. Now he uses only his sinker, which batters rarely miss but rarely hit hard either, because Roark constantly spots it low-and-away or on their fists. A garbage can full of broken bats might become his trademark. Still, that hardly explains his results in the Show.

Now in 10 career starts, he has given up zero earned runs five times and had eight quality starts. His record as a Nat since last August is 9-1 with a 1.98 ERA. This year, his 2.76 ERA is the lowest on a staff with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. These are the tales of smarts and perseverance, of cunning complementing gifts, of aggression directed at hitters you’ve been told all your life are better than you are, on which baseball dotes and prospers.

No one should expect 1.98, or perhaps even 2.76. But the conversation around Roark has changed completely since spring training, when he battled Taylor Jordan for the fifth spot in the rotation.

“He’s aggressive,” Manager Matt Williams said, using his favorite word, right next to “schedule.” Williams calling you aggressive is like the Pope calling you holy.

“He can throw all four of his pitches for strikes. Against right-handers, he commands the fastball low and away, uses a right-on-right change-up, which is a little unusual. And he commands his curveball in and out of the strike zone,” Williams added. Few pitches ever dominate right-handed hitters as Roark has, even over a short span, holding them to a .211 slugging average in 170 plate appearances.

“He keeps left-handed hitters off balance with that [swing-back] front-hip sinker and a good change-up,” Williams added. “He competes. He can hit. He can bunt. He changes speeds really well. He throws to bases [well], fields his position.”

So, Matt, you really hate the guy.

“He reminds me of [former Giant teammate] John Burkett,” Williams said later. “Fastball about 90, works fast with all four pitches. They are very similar.”

It’s not like being compared to Nolan Ryan, but it’ll work. In 15 seasons, Burkett won 166 games, had 10 seasons of 10-to-14 wins, including a 22-7 year — in other words, the durable, dependable starter that every contender needs.

A hundred starts, not 10, establish a career for pitchers such as Roark, whose stuff doesn’t wow scouts. He’s probably always going to be under a microscope. But he’s also probably underrated — a better, quicker athlete than he appears at 220 pounds in old-school high socks wearing No. 57 as a reminder that his success in the majors is seen as a long shot by many. Still, if you dig into the PitchFX data that’s now available, Roark is the only Nats starter with four pitches all rated above MLB-average efficiency.

“We’ve talked about that front-hip sinker to left-handed hitters. I learned it watching Greg Maddux,” Hernandez said. “I tell him to trust his curveball, too, throw it for strikes because it’s a real good one.”

When things are going this well, better perhaps than even your own fantasies, you don’t want to say too much, give away anything, and Roark doesn’t. Praise your catcher (Sandy Leon), say how good the cheers made you feel, but without being specific or colorful and, of retiring the first 16 hitters, don’t admit that “Perfect Game” even crossed your mind.

“I just feel confident on the mound and strong,” Roark said. “ ‘Strike one’ is still the best pitch.”

Then he talks about the actual technique of “staying on” that front-hip sinker or having his catcher sit on the outside corner between starts to work on keeping that low-away fastball precise. This, of course, is better than cute quotes. It’s where a hard game actually lives: in the details.

For now, those details love Roark, allow him to spot a hole in Will Venable’s swing and throw three consecutive 89-mph sinkers right past him for swing-and-miss strikes as if they were 98. Get behind All-Star Everth Cabrera 2-1, no problem — just paint low-away with a change-up like a veteran.

“It’s definitely humbling to know I can compete at this level,” Roark said.

That sounds self-effacing. Until you notice the key word: “know.”

He knows it and he’s proving it.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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