It wasn’t the cannonball many fans hoped for, but the Reds finally made an offseason splash by dealing for former Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark last Wednesday.

No, Roark won’t instantly turn the Reds’ starting rotation from a glaring weakness to a strength. But he does provide stability and experience the group needs. For the low price of Tanner Rainey, a reliever with a big arm who struggles to throw strikes, the move was likely an easy one for Dick Williams and company.

Why the Reds made the deal

The affordable price tag aside, the move made sense on multiple fronts for the Reds. The first, and most obvious, is his ability to stay healthy and pitch deep into games consistently.

Roark spent his entire six-year career in Washington, where he was overshadowed by bigger names such as Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. He still provided plenty of value as the No. 5 starter, earning the highly sought-after “innings eater” tag. The right-hander threw at least 180 innings in each of the last two seasons and tossed 198 in 2014. He largely pitched in relief the season in between.

In 2018, he made it through the sixth inning in 21 of 30 starts. As a team, the Reds got only 53 such outings from their starters. Only one team was worse: the Rays, who used a reliever to open a large portion of their games. Baseball is trending away from innings eaters in general, and teams are finding success by leaning heavily on their bullpens. Look no further than the division rival Brewers for evidence of that. But not all teams are built for that approach. Barring a surprise signing of Craig Kimbrel, Cincinnati doesn’t and won’t have a bullpen as talented as Milwaukee.

Roark’s dependability makes for a valuable addition to a Reds rotation that has lacked continuity as much as it’s struggled to keep runs off the scoreboard. For reference, only two Cincinnati pitchers have reached the 180-inning plateau since the team dealt Johnny Cueto away: Anthony DeSclafani in 2015 and Dan Straily in 2016. Only one pitcher (Luis Castillo in 2018) even made it to 150 innings in the last two seasons. Even if there’s more work to do, the Reds took a step toward fixing that problem.

The trade also gives the Reds a middle-of-the-rotation arm without making the multi-year commitment a pitcher like Matt Harvey is likely seeking. Roark is in the final year of his rookie deal and projects to earn $9.8 million in arbitration. While that’s not exactly pocket change for a No. 4 starter, it beats potentially paying a guaranteed $20 million or more to Harvey or a similar veteran pitcher.

The Metrics

Aside from the ability to simply take the ball every five days, what else can we expect from Roark?

You won’t see flashy stuff or gaudy strikeout numbers, but he misses enough bats to get by. For his career, the right-hander holds a 19.0% strikeout rate — below average but not by enough to kill him. Over the last three seasons, he bumped up that percentage from his early days (20.2%). The strikeout numbers stay in line with his raw ability to miss bats (career 8.6% swinging strike rate) and force batters to swing at bad pitches (career 30.2% chase rate). Although Roark’s walk rate has jumped a bit as his strikeouts have in the last three seasons, it’s nothing to get overly concerned about (7.8%).

Pitchers who find success despite not missing many bats usually have one key trait: limiting hard contact. In 2018, Roark allowed an average exit velocity of 87.2 mph. Among 139 pitchers with a minimum of 300 batted ball events, that ranked 45th. His soft-contact rate of 20.0% was 14th among 57 qualified starting pitchers and put him in the company of J.A. Happ (20.5%), Justin Verlander (20.1%), and Kyle Freeland (20.0%).

That ability is especially important for a pitcher who doesn’t generate many ground balls. After three straight years of forcing grounders better than the league-average pitcher, Roark managed a 40.7% ground-ball rate in 2018. Fortunately, his 37.6% fly-ball rate was somewhat offset by a 10.7% infield-popup rate, his highest since 2014. He wasn’t immune to the long ball, though. He allowed a career-high 24 home runs in 2018 and is giving up just north of one dinger per nine innings the last two years. That number figures to go up in Great American Ball Park, particularly if his ground-ball rate stays down.

The Repertoire

Roark’s bread and butter is throwing inside, as he put it on the day of the trade:

“I’m excited to go in there and do my thing and just attack, attack, attack.”

That’s a smart strategy when 61% of your pitches are fastballs. The sinker is far and away Roark’s go-to pitch. It gets plenty of ground balls at its best, though Roark struggled to get grounders with the offering in 2018. The pitch looks quite similar to a Tyler Mahle fastball, getting a lot of horizontal movement that can prove especially tricky to lefties when located well.

He also mixes in a four-seamer and, on rare occasions, a cutter. Neither is a particularly flashy pitch. He doesn’t light up the radar gun, averaging 91 mph on his heaters while topping out at 95.

Roark’s breaking balls bring a bit more intrigue. The slider was his best pitch for whiffs in 2018 and has generated a 15.4% swinging-strike rate for his career (15.5% in 2018). He throws it almost exclusively to righties (89% of his sliders in 2018 were against right-handers), burying the pitch down and away to generate weak contact and whiffs.

Roark’s curveball is his most aesthetically pleasing pitch. He prefers to throw it versus lefties, although he’ll use it plenty against right-handers too. The pitch gets a ton of drop — it averaged nearly 10 inches of vertical movement last year — which makes its low whiff rate (13.9% career) surprising. In 2017, he had that number up to 16.9%, but it fell back to 13.8% last year. He does, however, get a ton of chases on the pitch. Batters swung at curves outside the strike zone 40.8% of the time in 2018.

Inconsistent command keeps the curveball from becoming an elite pitch. He’ll leave it over the heart of the plate from time to time, and it resulted in four homers allowed last season. Below, you can see the difference in the pitch’s location between 2017 (left) and ’18 (right) — the increase in mistakes up in the zone is evident:

Roark mixes in a changeup as well. It boasted a whiff rate bordering on elite in 2017 (19.6%) but fell off the map in 2018 (11.4%). The pitch was always reliable for him before last year, but it was rated among the worst in the game in 2018 according to FanGraphs pitch value. The pitch had almost identical horizontal movement and more drop in 2018, but hitters were less inclined to offer at it outside the strike zone. The change’s chase rate fell from an incredible 46.7% in 2017 to a pedestrian 34.3% in 2018. Perhaps the increased vertical movement helped hitters identify it better. It’ll be interesting to see if pitching coach Derek Johnson can help Roark revitalize the changeup.

Final Thoughts

Roark isn’t flashy. His starts aren’t always must-watch affairs. He’s a one-year rental. He’ll have some bad games. But he’s more valuable than the Scott Feldmans of the world and makes more sense for the Reds than signing an aging free-agent pitcher to a multi-year contract. Roark has some intriguing pitches to work with and could become a true steal if Johnson can work the same magic he did in Milwaukee. Even if Roark doesn’t return to a three-win pitcher like he was in 2014 and ’16, his ability to give the Reds consistent innings will prove valuable.

28 Responses

  1. Mason Red

    I can only speak for myself but I’m getting tired of “affordable” and “one year rental”. The Reds are painting the picture that they HAVE to do things this way because this is a “small market” franchise. And it might be but that doesn’t mean they must always have that mentality. I don’t think small market means going through a 5 year “rebuild” in hopes of having 2-3 years of prosperity and then start all over again. This team isn’t the Yankees or the Red Sox in terms of money to spend but they’re not strapped for cash either. I don’t feel the urgency by this franchise to put a winner on the field. They have collected “prospects” but are afraid to make a trade to bring veteran starting pitching here. And I keep hearing here from other posters that doing things that would take away from possible success in the 2020-2023 time frame. With all do respect,as fans do we have really have to wait and hope for 2 years or more? And if moves don’t work at least the attempt was made to do SOMETHING and at the very least show the fans that the Reds are at least trying. It’s late December. In reality the season is just around the corner. To say the least I’m pessimistic based on what I’ve seen this offseason.

    • Ghettotrout1

      I understand your point of view but the truth of the matter is. When a team is as bad as the Reds has been no free agents really want to come here unless you drastically over pay them. I mean probably somewhere in the range of 20% more than market and to me that makes sense if your a fringe WS team (we aren’t even a fringe playoff team). If the Reds can show some progress next season this place will look more palatable to free agents also you can make some trades next season with more certainty that they will be good. My fear would be Reds sign Keuchel if he would even come here. We trade for Realmuto and possibly Bauer or something. That makes our team pretty awesome. But with that being said after 2 years we are in real trouble. Votto is 2 years older, Keuchel will regress, Realmuto will be a free agent, because of those trades we likely won’t have Senzel, Greene or Trammel to come up and help and the Scooter will be gone or old. It just doesn’t make sense to go crazy this offseason. Also even with all that “doing something” I just laid out they still probably will only be a wild card team. So we are willing to do all of this to possibly make the WC for 2 seasons. Yikes yikes yikes. I would rather just do value signings again and then trade next year and sign everyone next year. I hate losing but to do it all for a really short window no thanks.

    • bmblue

      Huh? Only way its a 2 year window is if they do the things you want them to do and get too much urgency. The reds will have 5+ years of control over senzel, trammel, india, greene, santillan, etc. The window is 2020-2025. Why would you go gangbusters this year and make that window 2019-2020? Patience, people. I’d rather have a few shots at the WS in 2020’s than a wild card in 2019.

  2. wizeman

    Let’s not sing the blues quite yet
    New forward thinking manager. New… respected hitting and pitching coaches. Jettisoned one of the worst hitters in the game. Solid Major League starter for past 4 years.
    Have had worse beginnings to offseasons.

  3. patrick mcclellan

    Just be patient, what’s another couple months. I have a strong feeling that ther will be a significant trade sometime really soon, whether it be with the Yankees or Dodgers time will see. I don’t foresee any trade with you he Indians transpiring. I also feel like Matt Harvey will return too. The Reds k ow the fan base is decking significantly , and without an attempt of improving quickly the fans may take years to return to the park. I keep hearing Roark as being a 4 or 5 starter but in reality he’s probably a legitimate 2 or 3 starter. I hope they offer him an extension for three years. With the endurance and lack of dL episodes he will be an ideal pitcher for years to come. I feel that one of the three will be on the opening day roster. Stroman,Gray, and Wood. In order to acquire these player the Reds will either lose Scooter or two of their top ten prospects. If they go out and sign someone like Harvey too then they will have an adequate rotation to compete for the season. My true feeling is that Alex Wood will be playing for the Reds too. I know all of this is speculation, but it’s also being optimistic. Tanner Roark is currently a one year rental, but with a good season I see the Reds signing to a long term deal. Also, their bullpen may not be as good as the aBrewers as of right now, but with the acquisitions of two of the above mentioned starters , the bullpen improves substantially. Having Iglesias, Burton, Lorenzen, Reed, and Peralta and adding someone like Boxberger and Miller and you will see a team is better than the Brewers. Just be patient An example of being impatient is signing someone. like McCutchen the price he made. If he waited another month his salary would have been half of what he received. Another thought to consider as far as the catching situation is in regard to Realmuto is that if they do trade for him they will be giving up higher prospects. I don’t think that’s needed. Sign Mesoraco and sign him for two years for cheap. I think he’s finally away from injuries and if he rebounds like I expect him to then the Reds will be able to deal him or Barnhart and by next year the Reds will be able to have Stephenson as either the starter or as the backup. If they do get Realmuto then they will have a gold Glover in Barnhart as a very, very decent trade chip. Just my thoughts. Think positive and try and avoid being a pessimist.

    • Matt Wilkes

      Agreed. I think it’s way too soon to start bemoaning the Reds for sitting on their hands. They’ve already been way more active this offseason than any of the last three years. Yeah, they’ve missed on a few free agents, but the market as a whole has been slow to develop just like last year. If Roark is still the only addition made by February or March, then the team will deserve all the criticism it gets.

    • Optimist

      Finally a Mesoraco reference. Why won’t he be the best backup C in MLB wherever he lands? Has he lost anything defensively? A power bat on the bench, probably an emergency 1b fill in, and 20-30 games catching. He’s still only 30. Awful luck, but think he’s a tremendous value now.

      Still, need the pitching, but unless he’s permanently wrecked physically, he’s useful.

  4. Ghettotrout1

    I also want to make the point that if we all can remember back in 2010 through 2014 the main reason the Reds were good is because they had a crop of really good internal talent come up. (Homer, Cueto, Leake, Bruce and Votto). If we can’t get anyone other than Castillo to be a viable solid everyday starter (#3 or better) there is no way we are going to be able to trade or sign our way into a good team. So unless two of (Mahle, Stephenson, Reed, Romano, Santillon, Lorenzen or Garret) can come up and even replicate Leake I really see no way we can honestly expect this team to make a sustainable winning 3 year window.

  5. scotly50

    Roark doesn’t push us any nearer to the top three the division, but the Reds have not fallen further behind them, thus far.

    Statistically his numbers will look worse, based on the difference pitching in Great American. But right now he will be projected as the Reds two starter, where he was the 4 starter on the Nationals.

  6. Tom

    This was a smart move, period. The Reds needed a solid pitcher on staff and they got it.

    They also need a top of the rotation pitcher. Having Roark doesn’t really affect that need or making that deal.

  7. Phil

    If Roark can duplicate his 2018 numbers that will be 180 innings worth roughly 2 WAR.
    DeSclafani has been worth 5.7 WAR in 422 innings pitched over the last 3 seasons. If he can repeat that kind of success over 150 innings this coming season, that would be another 2 WAR.
    Castillo has been worth 3.6 WAR in 259 innings pitched over the last 2 seasons. 175 innings from him at that rate would be worth 2.5 WAR.
    League average last year from the starting rotation was around 10-11 WAR. The Rays, Pirates and Twins were ranked 14, 15 & 16 in team WAR from the starting rotation with 10.8, 10.1 and 9.6 WAR.
    I’ve got Castillo, DeSclafani and Roark at 6.5 combined WAR. So that’s leaves around 4 WAR for the remaining 2 spots to get to league average.
    I don’t want to count on some combination of current Reds pitchers to be worth that 4 WAR. Signing Keuchel (steamer projection 3.2 WAR) or trading for Stroman (steamer projection 2.7 WAR) then counting on Reed, Mahle, Romano, Lorenzen, Stephenson, etc for the 5th spot and additional 1-1.5 WAR seems like something that would work.

  8. Tom Mitsoff

    Bottom line, the Reds got better (at least on paper) in this trade. All other considerations aside, that’s the one to remember. They got an established MLB starter for a bullpen prospect.

    The disappointment will come if there are no other starting pitching acquisitions.

  9. gusnwally

    I no longer see any good reason to target Kuechel. If the Astros are pushing hard for starters, why do they not want DK. It has come to light that he is asking for 20 mil per and a 5 or 6 year deal. that is absolutely preposterous. Even a 4 year deal at that figure strikes me as stupid. Yet, people are still screaming for him. So we should make a big deal, just to make a big splash. And then sit here broke for the next half decade. We already have one of those pitchers on the payroll. How is that working out. I am all for DJ working with the plethora of pitchers that we have traded for and groomed over the last few years. Although adding another solid starter in the Roark vein would be nice.

    • Goat

      I agree totally! Sign Harvey 3/36 and the staff will be respectable for next season. Go after a stud next year, someone like Sale!

      • Michael E

        Ugh, Harvey is garbage. Why do so many Reds fans want him? He barely gets to the 5th inning on 100 pitches and will be a 4.00 + ERA pitcher the rest of his career.

        Roark I like. Stats don’t tell the whole story. He has much better pitches than Harvey, only lacking that extra velocity. He had a near Cy Young year two seasons ago. I think with new pitching coach, we may have a gem on our hands. Worst case scenario is him repeating last years numbers. Best case is subtle top 10 SP in NL and a trade candidate if Reds are dragging up near the rear at the all-star break.

        I like that he has a slider and curve and main pitch is a 2 seamer. I am growing tired of Reds starters that all seem to have straight-as-an-arrow 4 seamers and not much in the way of breaking pitches.

        I am GLAD Harvey signed with L.A., so glad. I did not want him. He doesn’t move the needle in a positive way. He isn’t even an innings eater given completing 5 innings is a chore for him.

        I hope, like many of you, we do make a trade or sign an FA. I’d be thrilled if we get Kluber or Bauer. I’d be somewhat happy if we got Stroman for somewhat cheap deal. I hope we don’t sign a Fiers, but I will say, if Fiers or Anibal Sanchez can go out for 175+ innings, they’d probably be worth it. I just hope though, we have one SP heading into Spring that could be legitimately labeled with the word ‘Ace’.

  10. sixpack2

    Dick Williams is Dick Williams and I see a lot of positives since he took over. I’m sorry you can’t see them. Most of the GM’s you mentioned have almost unlimited budgets and Williams would have a lot of easy decisions if he had the same.

    My, advise, wait until March, and then August for your criticisms.

    • BigRedMike

      This is great news. No Harvey on the Reds

      • Michael E

        + 1

        Was sooooo afraid that would be the Reds “big” SP get…a sluggish SP4 – type like Harvey coming with SP3+ luxury price tag. PASS

    • Michael E

      Thank goodness… did NOT want the Reds to sign him and his 20+ pitches every inning struggle to get through 5 innings. A below average ERA and below average innings eater = well below average SP. No thanks, we already have about 10 of those, which hopefully PC Johnson will repair a couple and extract some nice value out of them for much less cost.

  11. Bill J

    They can’t wait out Harvey, he is signing with the Angels.

  12. Jeff reed

    Harvey was never really a part of the Reds move toward contention. Now they need a solid starting pitcher and a decision on centerfield.

  13. Michael E

    My favorite site the past few years, especially for fantasy baseball purposes. Here is Roark’s pitches in view and explained. Wish some of our home grown pitchers actually had functioning breaking balls. I sure hope PC Johnson can get some young SP’s a working breaking ball they can command and throw more often.

  14. Mason Red

    Harvey leaving explains the Roark trade. Definitely a lateral move.

    • BigRedMike

      It may end up being a lateral move, it seems encouraging that the Reds are attempting to turn over the roster. Bring back the same players from last season is not going to work considering how far they already are behind in the division.
      No Harvery and Hamilton. If/when they trade Gennett, this is a good offseason.

  15. Optimist

    Gary Nolan? Wayne Simpson? Injuries got both of them, Simpson in 6 months. Jim Maloney, or were the 60s too early?

  16. Daytonian

    I never harbored ill will to Harvey. And to have him back at a reasonable price would’ve been OK.

    But we now have $11-$14 million more to spend on a needed player. That price would’ve been way to much for the Reds to pay for Harvey, who, barring a miraculous recovery, would have been at most a mid- to back-end of the rotation starter.

    Roarke is presently the better pitcher–more consistent. With Roarke and minus Harvey, the Reds rotation is already improved. This is good, but not nearly enough.

    To shake off last year, the Reds still need to sign one more quality starter, not a back-of-the-rotation fill. Can they do it?