Since this is the time of year that we typically look ahead to the coming season, we’ll do just that at Blue Jays from Away and try to look into the crystal ball to see what we’re going to get for the 2020 Toronto Blue Jays, continuing with one of the Blue Jays’ free agent acquisitions of the offseason, Tanner Roark.
When the Blue Jays signed 33-year-old righty Tanner Roark to a two-year free agent deal this offseason, we were still waiting for the other shoe to drop. The signing of Roark to a two-year deal worth $24 million was considered to be a move to shore up the back end of the starting rotation and adding more depth to a rotation that struggled to eat innings in 2019 but hardly the centerpiece of the offseason that he appeared to be at that point. Eventually, the Shapiro/Atkins regime got their man with Hyun-Jin Ryu and Roark is now considered to be a nice, minor signing.
But what should we expect from the former Washington National, Cincinnati Red and Oakland Athletic? Roark’s career started really nicely with Washington as he was used mostly out of the bullpen in 2013, posting a stellar 1.51 ERA over 53 2/3 innings. He followed that up with a 198 2/3 innings in 31 starts for the Nats. He had a 15-10 record and posted a 2.85 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP and was a very strong pitcher that year, posting 3.3 fWAR. The following year, however, he had a setback, throwing 111 innings and posting a -0.2 fWAR with a 4.38 ERA and 1.31 WHIP. He had his best season in 2016, setting many career marks, starting with his 16-win season. He also threw 210 innings and had a 2.83 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, striking out 172 batters and seeing a career-low 0.7 HR/9.
But after that season, he was fairly consistent in 2017-2019, totaling at least 165 1/3 innings (last year) with an ERA between 4.34 and 4.67 while his WHIP fell between 1.28 and 1.40, striking out between 7.3 and 8.6 batters per nine and walking between 2.5 and 3.2 batters per nine. According to Fangraphs, Roark was worth 2.8 wins in 2017, 2.2 wins in 2018 and 2.0 last year split between Cincinnati and Oakland.
Roark is going from the National League (always a tougher transition for starters, who won’t have the cushy pitcher’s spot in the order to face anymore) to the AL East and even his time in the AL last year with Oakland, had him pitching six of his 10 outings at home with other outings in fairly pitcher-friendly environments in Seattle and Kansas City. I think it’s fairly easy to project some worse numbers from Roark in 2020, mainly because he’s going to be tested by deeper lineups of the AL East and the smaller ballparks.
Let’s also look at Roark’s stuff. According to Brooks Baseball, Roark has one really good pitch, his curveball (calling it “exceptional bite,” which Baseball Savant confirms, saying that it moves 12 inches away from a righthanded batter and drops 65 inches, whereas the league average horizontal movement in 10 inches with a 54-inch drop. Aside from the curve, which he used 12.8% of the time last year, Brooks Baseball notes that his sinker (used 30% of the time) has “little sinking action compared to a true sinker and results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ sinkers.” His four-seam fastball (25.5%) “has less armside movement than typical, has essentially average velo and results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers.” His slider (21.8%) “generates fewer whiffs/swing … and has less than expected depth.” So his stuff ain’t good.
In fact, according to Fangraphs, in 2019, Roark had the lowest groundball rates of his career, down to 36.2% and gave up 36.6% flyballs while his HR/FB rate was 15.5%, well over the league average. If this doesn’t change in 2020 with Toronto, then my prediction is that Roark is not going to enjoy his time in The 6ix.
Steamer (found on Fangraphs) projects 181 innings from Roark and expects him to have a 5.14 ERA with a 5.08 FIP and 5.04 xFIP, resulting in 1.4 fWAR. It thinks that Roark’s HR/9 rate will jump to 1.72, after a 1.52 mark in 2019. If the balls are as juiced as they were in 2019, I think that mark could rise even higher as Rogers Centre is one of the easiest places in baseball to hit home runs in.
Steamer also projects a decline in his strikeout rate from last year, down from 21.9% to 19.3% while his walk rate remains essentially stable at 7.0%. If the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays continue to have tough at bats against Blue Jay pitchers, forcing quality strikes, that walk rate could rise as well.
So here’s my take. I think we’ll see the usual bump in ERA/runs allowed that usually see with pitchers coming from the National League to the American League with Roark. I also think that the fact that he’s coming to a tough division with ballparks that play small and lineups that work pitchers hard will also lead to his stats being worse than expected. Unless Pete Walker has a magic solution to help bring something more out of Roark, I think he throws 160 innings with a 5.40 ERA and 1.38 WHIP, probably losing 15 games because the Blue Jays just let him stay in games and eat up innings (to a point).
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