MILWAUKEE - Right-hander Tanner Roark was at his wit’s end. He wasn’t getting outs like he used to. Losses were piling up.
So Roark went back to video of his 2016 campaign. That was the season he posted a career-high 16 wins and a 2.83 ERA.
He made a slight tweak to his mechanics. But results still did not turn his way.
Roark kept studying. He came to the realization that he had strayed away from what made him effective: his sinking fastball. He was not finishing well on this pitch.
“For me, I’ve gotten away from using my fastball,” Roark said. “Then everything else goes off of that. When we were five years old, we started throwing fastballs. We didn’t know anything else. Built off that. You got to use that. That’s my bread and butter, my fastball. And if that’s not working, then they could recognize other pitches that are coming are different because I’m not using my fastball enough. Then I get into bad counts and they get into hitter’s counts.”
Right before the All-Star break, Kintzler sat down with Roark and studied video of his delivery to the plate with his fastball. Kintzler noticed that during Roark’s delivery of his sinker, he was coming up and his back leg wasn’t staying down.
“I just saw him getting under it a lot,” Kintzler said. “His mechanics, I did a lot of the same things early in the year, our upper body posture gets a little bit forward, leaning forward, towards third base. So when you try to come back, you get rotated out and your arm gets under you. A lot of times, we’ll sink in our back leg. We don’t really want to sink in our back leg. We want to kill our back leg and kind of just fall. I just kind of recommended that to him.
“When we went over video during scouting reports, you see some video of him pop up. Well, that looks different. That’s really not what he looks like now. I just pointed a few things out. Getting his hand out of his glove and stuff. I just think we are so similar in what we need to do. He’d just been throwing a runner. He’s throwing a runner and he’s on third base side of the rubber, (so everything else) has to be extremely perfect.
To combat that, Nationals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist moved Roark over a bit on the rubber, where he didn’t have to be extremely perfect. It allowed him to get back on top of his fastball. Roark allowed four runs on six hits in the first two inning at New York on July 13. The Mets only had two hits and did not score in innings three through five. Roark took the loss, but said afterward that he felt better about his mechanics and the progress he made.
“It looked like his last start, it probably wasn’t great, but the life on his fastball was a lot better and he was pounding the zone,” Kintzler said.
Kintzler said they worked with Roark to take advantage of the power in his lower half, especially his leg strength, to help his sinker’s velocity and location. They reached that goal by keeping his legs down to the ground in his delivery.
“We are trying to keep him grounded,” Kintzler said. “If you have ever seen the picture of him in the hallway (field level Nationals Park) of the stadium at home his back foot is totally off the ground and he still has the ball in his hand, which we call dismounted. (In that position), you can’t stay grounded and anchor yourself down then pull the ball up. That’s why it becomes a runner, too.”
Kintzler said one technique they use to teach a pitcher how to drag his back foot off the rubber is by removing the pitcher’s shoe during the bullpen session so he could feel the mound better and the drag his back leg to generate more power.
Kintzler said what he and Roark try to do is get on top of the ball as they drive toward the plate.
“So (we are) really trying to get him to get so much of a drag line down the rubber where he can anchor himself,” Kintzler said. “By the time he gets there, he still has the ground to use to pull the ball down. He has been dismounting for such a long time, he’s really throwing it with one leg. And that’s why sometimes it’s been inconsistent. I think if we can get him to stay grounded - he’s such a big guy - his sinker can become really, really good. And he can use that big lower half.”
Roark was in a desperate spot before Kintzler came to the rescue. He told Roark to slow down his mechanics on his sinker.
“Kintzler has helped me big time,” Roark said.
“Always for me, it was timing. I was just going too quickly to the plate. For my sinker, I was never on top of it. I felt like I was on top of that, but I wasn’t. I was just behind it. I felt like I was on top of it, but when you look at the video, (Kintzler) was telling me you got to stay back. ‘Slower than slow’ is what he says.
Roark said a return to heavy use of his fastball opened up his other pitches.
“Everything comes off of that,” Roark said. “The more you use the fastball, the more everything is going to look like a fastball. And then they have to commit.
“So if a lefty is up, they have to commit. If I throw a two-seamer down and away, (they are thinking) is this going to be a strike or a ball? So then they have to make a decision. A split-second decision and then the changeup goes off of that. Almost looks like a fastball that I had earlier, and it’s a changeup. And then they go over it and miss it.”
Recently, Roark fought through a six-game losing streak. The mental side of not getting results and loss after loss started to wear on him.
He got so upset that it was affecting his overall game. He would allow two or three hits in a row and that would mess him up for the rest of the outing. Roark lost confidence in his pitches.
“I was tired of it happening and I didn’t know what to do,” Roark said. “It was pissing me off. So I took it out on some coolers.
“I let things get to me that I told myself not to let them get to me, but I did. I didn’t hold my ground. But I’m back to where I felt like I was at the beginning of that season.”
Roark acknowledged that overthinking was taking him out of what made him a good pitcher.
“Once you get on the mound, you got to compete,” Roark said. “I’m guilty of this. Once you start thinking about your mechanics on the mound, you’re not even thinking about the pitch. And then you have poor execution on the pitch. And then they are not synced up, so you got to do repetition after repetition after repetition to muscle memory. I mean, we know how to do this. We’ve done how many pitches in our lives?
“Just started to think a little, but too much. That’s always the biggest thing in baseball and sports in general. The mental part.”
So after getting help from Kintzler and Lilliquist, Roark now feels like he has regained the confidence he needs to make the sinker what it was when he was on target in 2016.
“When I get on the mound, just trust the guys behind me and the catcher and not be afraid of them hitting the ball,” Roark said. “I feel good. Sometimes I try to overthrow. (But) if I just hit my spots, the velocity will be there. Instead of trying to throw it with my arm, I got to throw from the ground up, with my legs.
“And when I’m throwing from my arm, that’s when you get problems. Things don’t look the same to the hitters. They notice the slight difference in the pitches. They don’t swing at it because they don’t like the way it looks. It might be a good pitch, but they don’t like the way it looks. Deception is key.”