After getting bumped from the rotation after the Max Scherzer free agent signing, it was an open question how the Nationals would use Tanner Roark out of the bullpen. Prior to the season I saw two possibilities:
1. Roark adjusts his pitching approach to become a reliever, hopefully adding a couple of miles per hour to his fastball. With luck, Roark generates more strikeouts with greater velocity and increased movement.
2. Roark changes nothing and he’s relegated to mop-up duty and extra innings when all the other available relievers have already been used.
One week into the season it’s clear which option the Nationals chose. Here are Roark’s appearances so far this season.
-Top of the 7th with the Nationals losing 6-1 to Mets. Roark pitched two scoreless innings.
-Bottom of the 10th with the Nats tied 2-2 with the Phillies. Roark was the 4th Nats reliever on the day. He gave up one run and got tagged with the loss.
-Bottom of the 3rd with the Nats losing 7-0 to the Red Sox. Roark allowed one inherited runner to score and then gave up one more run in 3.2 innings.
Roark started 31 games last season with a 2.85 ERA in 198.2 innings. Yet, two of his three appearances this season have been ultra-low leverage situations where the outcome of the game had largely been decided. Additionally, the extra inning game was a situation where Roark’s primary skill set (throw strikes, induce weak contact), is not particularly well suited. In extra innings–a potential walk-off situation–the Nats would be better off using a high strikeout reliever like Drew Storen. Sadly, Roark finds himself in the same situation as Ross Dewiler last season: the odd man out of the rotation, but not well suited for short term relief.
I have no idea whether the Nationals tried to adjust Roark’s pitching approach to make him more deadly in relief (this is the first option listed above). There are several reasons why this plan might not work. Some pitchers easily adjust to a bullpen job (for example, Zach Britton in Baltimore or Blake Treinen here in DC). Some starters, however, lose their command when trying to throw harder, or simply can’t find the extra velocity needed to make a difference.
It is also possible the Nationals didn’t want Roark to change anything. With Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann leaving this offseason, Roark will be needed in the 2016 rotation. Asking Roark to change his approach–and then then change it back–could hurt his development or worse lead to injury.
And finally, Roark may find himself back in the Nats rotation this season. He’s only one injury away.
Currently, however, Roark is painfully miscast on the 2015 Nats. As the team struggles out of the gate, it’s possible one their biggest weapons won’t ever be taken out of the arsenal.