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The Nationals Are Lucky to Have Tanner Roark

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The Lineup! This is a weekly column that will examine — you guessed it — nine topics from the world of baseball in numbered order.

1 Jonathan Holder racks up the shaves.

I detest the New York Yankees’ ban on long hair and beards. It’s a senseless restriction on the freedom of workers by management, and it’s based on outmoded and classist conceptions of respectability. Preventing grown men from having beards in this day and age is some New England prep school–ass, don’t-trust-the-hippies bullshit.

Yet I find myself thanking the Yankees’ outdated rule today because of rookie reliever Jonathan Holder, who made his debut last week. In 2013, Holder was one of the best college relievers in the country, leading Mississippi State to the final of the College World Series; in 2014, the Yankees took him in the sixth round. This year, Holder’s been nearly unhittable, punching out 101 batters in 65.1 innings across three minor league levels and allowing only 36 hits and seven walks. He’s really good, and I’m excited to watch him against big league competition.

If you take a peek at his bio from Double-A, you’ll see that he’s a pretty good-looking kid, fresh-faced with nice eyes and a friendly smile. Well, that’s because the Yankees’ personal grooming policy — bullshit though it may be — forced Holder to undo the greatest mistake of his collegiate career.

I get that Starkville, Mississippi, is not New York City, but that’s not an excuse to look like the driver for a start-and-park team in the 1985 NASCAR Busch Series. For better or worse, the Yankees made Holder heed the words of the late poet and musician Wesley Willis in his seminal work “Cut the Mullet”: “Take your ass to the barber shop / Tell the barber that you’re sick of looking like an asshole.”

I believe Holder ought to have the freedom to invite Kenny Powers comparisons (many of which got old long before his last collegiate pitch), but I also believe that he’s better off in the long run with that freedom taken away.

2 Tanner Roark is kicking ass.

The Washington Nationals have a very good pitching staff, as you might expect given the big names that have taken the mound this year. There’s Max Scherzer, the 2013 Cy Young winner on a $210 million contract and patron saint of Turn Your TV On, He Might Throw A Perfect Game; Stephen Strasburg, the most-hyped pitching prospect of all time; ultra-durable lefty Gio González, who helped kick off Washington’s current run of successes with a third-place Cy Young finish in 2012. And then there are exciting kids: 23-year-old Joe Ross, 24-year-old A.J. Cole, and most promising, 21-year-old right-hander Lucas Giolito, whom MLB Pipeline ranks as the top pitching prospect in baseball.

Tanner Roark, however, is not interesting. A 29-year-old in his fourth big league season, he doesn’t carry that whiff of tantalizing potential. And as a 25th-round pick out of Illinois, I’m not sure he ever has. Roark is ranked 60th out of 79 qualified starters in strikeout rate, with the 28th-highest walk rate and 33rd-highest fastball velocity. At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, he’s not the statuesque specimen Giolito is, and with the beard and haircut of a hockey player in May plus his compact, drop-and-drive delivery, he looks like a lump of pitcher that jumped off the factory conveyor belt before being decorated.

Perhaps this is why former Nationals manager Matt Williams kept scraping Roark off the back of the rotation like excess peanut butter off a knife. When the Nationals had five above-average pitchers heading into the 2014 playoffs, it was Roark who went to the bullpen for the playoffs. The Nationals added Scherzer in 2015, and Roark — despite posting a 131 ERA+ over 198.2 innings the year before — once again went to the pen to start the year.

But with Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister lost to free agency this past offseason, Roark is back in the rotation — and however uninteresting he might look on the surface, he’s been one of the best pitchers in the National League this year. He’s sixth in the National League in ERA+ at 144 — only one point behind Scherzer.

For as nice as it would be if Roark possessed some suborbital 12-to-6 curveball or a slider that could pull the rug out from under right-handed hitters, there isn’t one weapon that puts him on Scherzer’s level: You have to really look to find a reason for his success. Roark mixes his pitches well — throwing a slider, curveball, and changeup at least 10 percent of the time for each — and avoids hard contact by mainly working on the outside edge of the plate while remaining unafraid to come inside, as his 12 hit batters are tied for second in baseball. By keeping hitters guessing and avoiding dangerous areas of the zone, Roark has generated the second-highest soft contact rate among qualified starters.

With only one complete game in his major league career, Roark lacks Scherzer’s propensity for the spectacular single-game performance (it’s OK, almost everyone does), but he’s also managed to avoid disaster for the most part. Roark’s lasted at least five innings in 26 of his 28 starts and posted a game score of 50 or better in 21 (compared to Scherzer’s 22).

That said, the most obvious explanation for Roark’s success is luck. He is outperforming his FIP by almost a full run, and his DRA (Baseball Prospectus’ metric for ironing randomness out of pitcher performance) by almost two.

ERA estimators aren’t perfect. They generalize — pitchers usually behave and perform a certain way and, for the majority of cases, fit a certain model — but the more we study batted-ball data, the shakier those generalizations look. Besides, most generalizations have exceptions. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t go out on a limb to say Roark’s one of those exceptions.

Sustainable or not, Roark has been an absolute rock in Washington, a reliable deputy for Scherzer while Strasburg and Ross have struggled to stay healthy and González enters his decline phase. The effect of that reliability — 178 innings so far of quality starting pitching — makes everyone else’s job easier.

Last year, the Nationals entered the season as division favorites and got a historically great season from Bryce Harper and a top-five Cy Young finish from Scherzer. Yet they did so little else correctly that they went from two games up in the division at the trade deadline to seven games out by season’s end. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and nobody knows better than the Nationals how little being good matters when you’re unlucky.

3 Second base is the new power position.

The hottest power hitter in baseball is Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, who celebrated Labor Day by doing some heavy lifting: three home runs in an 11–5 loss to Kansas City. Dozier now sits on 38 home runs for the year, second behind Mark Trumbo for the major league lead, and he’s within striking distance of the single-season record for home runs by a second baseman: 43, a record set by Davey Johnson in 1973.

Back in baseball’s infancy, second base was a power hitter’s position while third base was reserved for quicker, smaller players. But by the time the dead-ball era ended, the two roles had switched, and only three second basemen — Johnson, Rogers Hornsby in 1922, and Ryne Sandberg in 1990 — have hit 40 home runs in a season.

Dozier’s not the only second baseman on a power binge. With a month to go, Robinson Canó has 32 home runs, only one less than his career high of 33, and the Rangers’ Rougned Odor hit his historic 30th on Monday, making him the first player in baseball history to hit 30 home runs in a season while walking less than 3 percent of the time.

For only the second time in major league history, three second basemen have hit 30 or more home runs in the same season. Four accomplished the feat in 2009 (Aaron Hill, Chase Utley, Dan Uggla, and Ian Kinsler), but that record might not last for long. With about 25 games left to play, nine second basemen have 21 or more home runs, two of whom (Kinsler and Daniel Murphy) sit at 25. Add in José Altuve’s MVP campaign, and it’s been one of the best offensive years ever at the keystone.

4 What’s it going to take for pitchers to wear helmets?

Angels right-hander Matt Shoemaker underwent successful surgery on Sunday night to stop internal bleeding in his skull after a line drive hit him in the head that afternoon. While all indications point to Shoemaker making a full recovery, that’s a scary sentence to type.

It’s not exactly routine for pitchers to suffer skull fractures or concussions on comebackers, but it’s not unheard of. This happens once or twice a year at the big league level. There was the time Aroldis Chapman had to get a metal plate inserted into his face in 2014, or Brandon McCarthy’s 2012 life-threatening experience, to name two. But the image that keeps me up at night is former Red Sox reliever Bryce Florie sitting in front of the mound in 2000, staring vacantly off into the distance as a torrent of blood flowed from his eye.

Whenever one of these incidents occurs, the question eventually follows: Should pitchers wear some sort of helmet? It’s a complicated one. Injuries like Shoemaker’s aren’t part and parcel of the game like concussions are in football; they might be unnervingly common, but they are essentially freak accidents. Besides, pitchers have tried various helmet mock-ups that are almost universally rejected as uncomfortable, distracting, or just silly looking. Even McCarthy returned to action protected by just a fraction of an inch of polyester over his skull.

With very few exceptions (see: Giants minor leaguer Álex Torres), players have decided that the occasional line drive to the head is an acceptable risk. Baseball uniforms are not as safe as they could be, but neither are most of the devices or machines we interact with every day.

An equipment change of this nature would have to either come from the players organically or by a rule change approved by the MLBPA in concert with the league — neither of which I imagine happening anytime soon. The only way that’d change is if (1) someone invents a helmet that looks and feels like a normal hat or (2) pitching without protective headgear starts to feel a lot riskier than it does now. In other words, big league pitchers are going to continue to suffer skull fractures from line drives until one of them gets killed.

5 The WPA graph of the week goes to the Dodgers and Rockies.

The Dodgers scored eight runs in the last two innings to win the second game of a doubleheader on Wednesday that was punctuated by a go-ahead grand slam by Andrew Toles in the top of the ninth.

FanGraphs
FanGraphs

Since Toles’s homer took the Dodgers from a trailing position to the lead and since it came when they were down to their last out, one swing of the bat took the Dodgers from a 15.6 percent chance to win all the way up to 88.6 percent. That’s a fun number to toss around, but this is one of those times when the stats don’t add anything that wasn’t immediately obvious in the moment.

Toles — along with the entire Dodgers bench and Rockies pitcher Adam Ottavino (whose shock and disappointment moved him to wear his glove like a hat) — knew exactly how important that hit was as soon as it left his bat.

6 Raúl Alcántara made history on Monday.

The Oakland A’s are roughly 4,000 games out of first place in the AL West, and with Sonny Gray hurt and Rich Hill gone via trade, September’s expanded rosters have given GM David Forst a chance to fill the starting rotation with what he undoubtedly hopes will be the next generation of Athletics pitchers — namely rookies Raúl Alcántara and Jharel Cotton.

Alcántara went first, and he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory. On Monday, he allowed five earned runs in three innings without striking a batter out, but he also hit three batters in the first inning then balked in the third. The last pitcher to hit three batters in his big league debut was Brett Cecil in 2009, and the only other pitcher since 1913 (the first year Baseball-Reference’s Play Index had this type of data) to balk and hit even two batters in his big league debut was Jerry Reuss in 1969. Reuss somehow pitched seven innings of two-hit shutout ball that day, too.

Everyone has the occasional bad day — Zack Greinke gave up five home runs on Monday, for instance — so it’s not that surprising to see Alcántara, the no. 29 prospect in the A’s system according to MLB Pipeline, struggle his first time out. Here’s hoping he has more luck finding the plate next time.

7 The Twins are looking for a stepdad.

The latest trend in MLB front offices is to place a veteran GM in some kind of “team president” role and to hire a GM underneath him in a power-sharing role: the GM running the team’s day-to-day activities while the team president either interfaces with ownership or works on strategic, big-picture matters. Many of the most influential and famous GMs of the past 20 years — Billy Beane, Dave Dombrowski, Theo Epstein, Andrew Friedman — now hold titles like “President of Baseball Operations.”

It seems like the Minnesota Twins, who fired GM Terry Ryan almost two months ago, are looking at Dodgers vice president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos to be their Theo Epstein. Anthopoulos is certainly qualified — before he arrived in Los Angeles this past offseason, he was with the Blue Jays for more than a decade — but the Twins’ interest is notable for reasons beyond his CV.

It sounds absurd, but the Minnesota Twins have never hired an external candidate for GM.

The current interim GM, Rob Antony, has been with the team since 1987, when he was a college intern. Antony replaced Ryan, who was in his second stint as GM and had been with the team since 1986. Ryan took the team over from his handpicked successor Bill Smith, who’d also been with the team since 1986, and had been the GM from 2007 to 2011. Smith replaced Ryan, who’d been GM since 1994, when he was promoted to replace Andy MacPhail, who’d left to take over the Cubs. MacPhail joined the Twins from the Astros as vice president of player personnel in 1985, and was promoted to GM to succeed Howard Fox, the incumbent GM and the team’s new president. Fox joined the Twins organization following his service in the U.S. Army in World War II.

Fox’s predecessor, Calvin Griffith, was also the team’s owner, and he ran baseball operations starting in 1955, back when the Twins were still the Washington Senators. Griffith inherited the Senators from his uncle — Hall of Fame pitcher Clark Griffith — who’d run the team since he bought it in 1920.

The elder Griffith was the last outsider to take over the Twins (or its predecessor) and back then, it was common for owners to oversee baseball ops. The same offseason Griffith bought the Senators, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees (legend has it) to finance the Broadway musical No, No Nanette.

Moreover, Smith still works in the Twins’ front office. So do former managers Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire. Current manager Paul Molitor is a Saint Paul native who played for the Twins and before that, the University of Minnesota. The Twins could not be more resistant to change if they were played by Hayley Mills and intentionally sabotaged a camping trip with their father’s fiancée.

Anthopoulos would be a fine hire, but the most important thing he’d bring is a fresh perspective to a team in dire need of one.

8 More teams are adopting Olympians.

I’ll stop talking about this when it stops being awesome. Two more members of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team threw out a first pitch this past weekend. Laurie Hernandez appeared at Citi Field …

… and Madison Kocian showed up at Globe Life Park in Arlington:

Two other things of note:

1. Most of the time — when it’s just some local businessman or contest winner throwing out the first pitch — the team sends out a pitcher who has the day off to catch it instead of bothering with someone important. But when Kocian showed up, Rangers manager Jeff Banister got his squat on.

2. After years of celebrities and politicians putting the first pitch in the first base dugout, Kocian and Hernandez both kept the ball around the plate.

9 Look out for Christian Yelich.

The Marlins are fading fast in the NL wild-card race, but let’s heap a little praise on their fourth-most-famous outfielder anyway. Of the little attention that’s given to the the Marlins, most of it has gone to The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton’s groin injury, Ichiro Suzuki’s pursuit of 3,000 hits, Marcell Ozuna’s first All-Star campaign, or José Fernandez’s pursuit of the Cy Young.

Christian Yelich has gotten lost in the shuffle, but the former top-15 prospect has had the best season of his career. Despite being in his fourth big league season, Yelich is only 24, and like most young men that age, he’s starting to fill out. Yelich is hitting .304 with a .379 OBP — both career highs, but not wildly out of line with his career norms. He has, however, already set a new career high in doubles (34) and doubled his career high in home runs (18 and counting). Adding an extra 75 points of slugging percentage this year makes Yelich a legitimate no. 2 or no. 3 hitter to pair with Stanton in the middle of the order rather than a top-of-the-order-only slap hitter. And he’s done this without particularly detracting from what made him a good player to start: his batting average, OBP, and defense.

This will be a particularly exciting development if Stanton and Fernandez can stay healthy and the Marlins can surround their core with a competitive team. If not, Yelich has to wait only five more years for free agency (Miami has a team option in ‘22). Maybe he’ll find out what the playoffs are like then.

All stats are current through Tuesday afternoon.