JUPITER, Fla. — The 2017 season left Tanner Roark frustrated. His results didn’t mimic those he was used to as a starter. He didn’t get to pitch in the National League Division Series. So he went home to his family and thought about it, just him — “me, myself,” he said. He decided he needed to change.
Roark used to stand on the rubber and face the hitter when no one was on base. He would turn and lean and reach back before delivering, a process that worked rather well for him for his first two seasons as a starter. He won 15 games as a first-time, full-time starter in 2014. He won 16 when he returned to the rotation in 2016. His ERA was 2.85 in 2014, 2.83 in 2016, the numerical definition of consistent.
But he never found consistency last season. His ERA was two full runs higher and he never seemed comfortable, physically or mentally, despite saying over and over again in postgame interviews that he “felt good” despite results. His manager admitted the World Baseball Classic’s early grind probably contributed to an up-and-down season that eventually left him without an inning of work in the NLDS. Roark admitted he was overthinking all year.
“There was just a lot going on. You know, life,” Roark said. “Learn from it. Get better.”
As he threw four scoreless innings in his third spring training outing Monday, Roark had very little going on at all. He allowed one hit. His stuff looked strong, well-located, repeatedly reliable. And as in all three of those starts now, he didn’t square up to the hitter when the bases were clear. Instead, he stood with his back foot on the rubber, as he might in the stretch, came set, and stepped laterally back with his front foot — like Noah Syndergaard or David Price, for example — before loading over the rubber and pushing forward. In other words, he is using a modified (and simplified) windup, not quite as stark a change as Stephen Strasburg made in throwing only from the stretch, but substantial nonetheless.
“It feels simple, what I want out of mechanics. If you have a tendency to think too much sometimes, sometimes you get stuck in a rut or you’re struggling a little bit and you keep overthinking and it just adds, adds, adds,” Roark said. “Sometimes simplifying mechanics can simplify easy fixes.”
Spring training statistics sometimes foretell regular season statistics. Usually, they do not. So who knows what it means that Roark has yet to allow a run and has averaged a strikeout per inning in eight innings? For a man who had not even rejoined Nationals camp by this time last year, it feels like a good sign. The Nationals need Roark. Quietly, he is the linchpin of this vaunted rotation, the durable and dependable one who flies under the radar and, until last year, always seemed to overperform. With a healthy and right Roark behind Max Scherzer and Strasburg, the Nationals have one of the best 1-2-3 starting punches in baseball, a powerful force for October. Without him, they must rely on Gio Gonzalez, who is remarkably consistent in his annual numbers but not from day to day. Without Roark, the Nationals would probably need another front-line starter.
Perhaps they will still chase one. Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn and others are still available. Those rumors have swirled all winter. The Nationals will almost certainly chase another starter after this season, when Gonzalez becomes a free agent. Roark, 31, is under team control for two more seasons, meaning the Nationals could pair him with Scherzer and Strasburg for at least that long. If he is the pitcher he was in 2014 and 2016, that trio could help prop open this team’s National League East window.
All of that comes later, of course. So far, Roark has looked like Roark again, like the efficient righty with a knack for inducing weak contact, the guy everyone underestimates until he matches them blow for blow. The delivery is different from last year’s, and seems likely to remain so given its early success. He hopes the results are different from last year’s, too.