WASHINGTON — He stood by himself, with his long, slick black hair and shaggy stubble, well dressed and suited for the occasion but ignored by the masses.
When the Washington Nationals held their press conference to introduce new manager Matt Williams last Nov. 1, a few players made the trek to D.C. to be on hand for the occasion. Jayson Werth, the veteran outfielder who lives in the Virginia suburbs, was present. Ian Desmond, one of the clubhouse leaders, had been flown in for the event. Even Randy Knorr, the bench coach who had been up for Williams’ job but had not been selected, sat among the crowd to show his support and solidarity.
And then there was Tanner Roark.
He seemed out of place, the journeyman minor leaguer who had only made a handful of major league appearances the year before and was by no means guaranteed a spot on the big club come spring. And yet, here he was, having made the drive down from his new home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
After Williams had officially been introduced, the media crowded around him and the others while Roark stood quietly to the side. As anyone who cared to ask found out, he had quite a busy off-season, getting married and becoming an instant parent as a stepdad to his new bride’s child. He had bought a house as well, in her hometown, launching himself into family life.
Such life events are often used to explain slumps in production among professional athletes. But in his first full major-league season, Roark hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. In fact, after winning a rotation spot in spring training, he’s established himself as the single best pitcher on the Nationals staff and one of the best in baseball.
It’s Roark, not Roark
That line became a joke among Nationals fans on Twitter when the journeyman minor leaguer Roark (pronounced ROW-ark) was summoned to the big leagues in early August last year. It quickly went from a passing curiosity to a term of endearment, as Roark did not allow an earned run over his first four major league appearances, spanning 10 innings.
That included a pair of relief wins over the Giants and Phillies, as well as four huge scoreless frames following Stephen Strasburg’s first-inning ejection Aug. 17 at Atlanta, in what would end up being an epic 8-7 victory in 15 innings.
Then Roark went home. A native of tiny Wilmington, Illinois, a town of fewer than 6,000 residents about an hour southwest of Chicago (and a childhood Cubs fan), Roark saw not just his family but a rooting section of nearly 100 residents make their way to Wrigley Field when the Nats took on the Cubs last Aug. 21. Not knowing whether he would pitch, the Roark rooting section nevertheless chanted his name all game. And suddenly they got their wish.
Roark entered the game but quickly surrendered the lead, allowing the Cubs to tie the game. But he escaped and came back out to strike out the side in the sixth inning. The Nationals pushed in front for good in the next half-inning, giving Roark the win.
That night, as he walked out of the cathedral of a ballpark he visited as a child, he was greeted as a hero, with throngs of fans massing around the gate at the corner of Addison and Sheffield.
One could be excused for thinking that dream-like Chicago outing would be the pinnacle, the one shining moment of his major league career. But he has continued to shine, quietly, behind bigger names and contracts. Few pitchers in baseball have had the kind of success that Roark has seen since his ascent to the big leagues last summer.
Roark appeared with the Nats for the first time on Aug. 7 of last season, just shy of a year ago. In 35 appearances (26 starts) since that day, he has gone 18-7 with a 2.39 ERA, striking out 143 batters while walking just 40 in 188.1 innings pitched.
If that 2.39 ERA sounds impressive, it should. Here’s the rest of the Nationals’ current rotation over that same time period:
Stephen Strasburg: 3.29 (72 ER/190 IP)
Gio Gonzalez: 3.55 (60 ER/152.1 IP)
Jordan Zimmermann: 3.22 (71 ER/198.1 IP)
Doug Fister: 3.20 (58 ER/163 IP)
Roark’s quiet dominance over this stretch extends beyond just his numbers relative to his teammates, though. He trails only three pitchers in all of baseball over that time: back-to-back NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw (1.67), Reds ace Johnny Cueto (1.96) and Zack Greinke (2.23).
He’s been better than All-Star Game starter and Cy Young contender Adam Wainwright (2.69). Better than his American League counterpart, Felix Hernandez (2.61). Better than Chris Sale (2.69) or recent blockbuster trade acquisition Jon Lester (2.46).
Usually, when a team reaches the postseason, it shortens the rotation to four (or even three) starters, to put its best foot forward. One would be hard-pressed to see the Nats leaving Roark, their erstwhile number-five rotation piece, out of the mix, though. Here’s his success this year against teams currently in good position to make the postseason:
Atlanta: 1-0, 5.40 ERA (6 ER/10 IP)
LA Angels: 0-0, 0.00 ERA (0 ER/6.2 IP)
Milwaukee: 1-0, 1.29 ERA (1 ER/7.0 IP)
Oakland: 0-0, 1.17 ERA (1 ER/7.2 IP)
San Francisco: 1-0, 3.00 ERA (2 ER/6.0 IP)
Save for one mediocre outing against the Braves, those are pretty impressive marks. They add up to a combined mark of 3-0 and a 2.41 ERA, slightly better than his overall marks for the year (11-6, 2.74). Needless to say, Roark is not padding his stats by feeding on weaker competition.
If the Nationals go on to win the NL East, Roark will have been a huge part of that effort. And if they do, Williams will have some big decisions to make about his quiet star, who has been there in support since his first day on the job, putting up some of the best numbers in the league.