One of my favorite Twitter hasthtags is #firstworldproblems. Who among us can’t appreciate the difficulties of iPhone ownership or the lack of farm fresh eggs? This is a seriously challenging world in which we live, and it can be a daily struggle navigating a life in the developed world.
I’m still not used to the color change of the Netflix app. #firstworldproblems
— First World Problems (@firstworldme) March 23, 2015
The Washington Nationals have a bit of a first world baseball problem on their hands. The signing of Max Scherzer to lead an already loaded rotation has created a glut of starting pitching in the nation’s capital. Really, it is an embarrassment of riches. Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, and Tanner Roark give the Nationals the best starting pitching depth in the league.
Keeping up with the #firstworldproblems theme of this post, choosing between Gonzalez and Roark for the fifth and final spot in the rotation is like choosing between ordering Papa John’s or Dominos from your smart phone. Both are good, but is one better?
Let me preface all of the analysis I am about to present by making one thing very clear. Like choosing between a black or white iPhone, it does not matter in the long run. The Nationals will make the playoffs by a wide margin. The Nationals could give Teddy Roosevelt’s mascot race character a few turns in the rotation and it still wouldn’t matter. As it stands now, Roark appears destined for the bullpen, with Gonzalez slated to hold the final spot in the rotation.
As the likely fifth starter, neither Gonzalez or Roark will figure into the playoff rotation. Sending Roark to the bullpen now, where he has worked in the past, is a good decision that helps to avoid having him make a transition later in the year. Gonzalez has only come out of the bullpen six times over the course of his seven-year major league career. It is probably too late to have him make the switch now.
By all accounts, Roark has been a great baseball story to follow the past two years. In six minor league seasons, he compiled a 49-42 record with a 4.04 ERA and 7.7 K/9. Now, with 45 career games with the Nationals, the 28-year old has a 22-11 record with a 2.57 ERA. Roark has struck out just 6.3 batters per nine at the big league level.
Roark’s 2.85 ERA last season looks impressive, but it was largely aided by a below average BABIP of .273 — 25 points below the league average. Take a look at Roark’s FIP from 2014, which paints a better all-around picture of a pitcher’s ability to prevent runs, and you see that figure climb to 3.47, still good, but nearly half a run higher than Gonzalez’s 3.01 FIP from 2014. Roark’s 2014 FIP was significantly lower than any he put up over the course of a full season as a starter in the minors. Another stat to consider — Roark stranded nearly 80% of men on base in 2014.
Roark is not a hard thrower, with an average fastball velocity of just 91.1 mph. He pitches to contact and induces ground balls at a 40% clip, but even that can be misleading, as Roark gives up more flyballs on his sinker than the average sinkerballer. The fact that Roark blossomed into a productive major league starter is impressive, but I do not think the Nationals can count on him to continue riding his lucky streak into 2015. All of the signs — low BABIP and strikeout rate, high groundball and strand rate — scream regression. Roark was an average at best minor league pitcher. Yes, he has been successful in two seasons with the Nationals, but it is highly unlikely that he will continue to maintain the same pace the rest of his career.
Gio Gonzalez, on the flip side, had what was considered to be a disappointing 2014 season, as he went only 10-10 with a 3.57 ERA. His FIP, however, was the second best of his entire career, at 3.01. It is right there in black and white — Gonzalez was nearly half a run better than Roark in 2014 if you are willing to dive a little deeper into the statistics. It makes sense to view Gonzalez’s 2014 as a disappointment given the fact that his win total has declined each season since his 21-win 2012 season. Gonzalez can still be counted on to strike out over 9.0 per nine. He will earn only $11 million this season, and the Nationals hold options through the 2018 season for only $12 million. If Gonzalez stays healthy, those years could represent an extremely good bargain for the Nationals.
There have been minor rumblings that the Nationals should trade Gonzalez and capitalize on his value when it is highest. I believe the opposite. Gonzalez is the proven starter with a very good track record. Roark, in my opinion, is an above average pitcher who rode good fortune to a misleading ERA last season. The peripheral numbers do not support another sub-3.00 ERA season, and I feel he is overvalued. The Nationals are in danger of becoming the Phillies — a team that went all in on a World Series push, but neglected to restock their farm system. The best course of action is to seek a return on Roark and strike while the iron is hot. He has already shown signs of trouble this spring, allowing 15 hits in only nine innings.
Having to choose between two pitchers who are both projected for a sub-3.50 ERA season is the baseball equivalent of choosing between soy and almond milk. It is a good problem to have. By choosing Gio Gonzalez over Tanner Roark, the Nationals have made the right decision. Now, will they make the right decision and sell high on Roark?