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Gary Armida's Blog
Ricky Romero's StrugglesPosted on July 19, 2012 at 08:57 AM.
It seems like every spring, the Toronto Blue Jays are touted as a sleeper pick to make the playoffs. There is good reason for that; they are a quality team and organization from top to bottom. Alex Anthopoulos and his staff have built a powerful offense, stocked the farm system well, and have had many of their reaches--Colby Rasmus, Yunel Escobar, and Edwin Encarnacion--come out exactly as planned. The Blue Jays, despite being on a significantly smaller budget than the Yankees and Red Sox, have built a team that can compete in the difficult AL East.
For most of the season, the Blue Jays have sat in third or fourth place, a few games over the .500 mark. That accomplishment is stunning considering the injuries that they have faced. Three fifths of the rotation is on the disabled list. Their anointed closer, Sergio Santos, has pitched a total of five brutal innings and is now lost for the season. His setup man, Francisco Cordero, is busy proving why no team was interested in bringing him in as a closer. Then, perhaps the most devastating blow to any sliver of hope of making the playoffs, Jose Bautista took a swing and was writhing in pain at Yankee Stadium. While it looks like the Blue Jays caught a break and Bautista isnít said to be seriously hurt, they have now fallen into last place and are now the only sub-.500 team in the division despite being third in runs scored and second in homeruns.
But, the Blue Jaysí hopeful season was dashed before Bautista took his ill-fated swing. The first nail was driven in when Brandon Morrow went on the disabled list with an oblique injury. He is progressing, but canít be expected back until mid to late August. The other nail is being pummeled in by Ricky Romero. Billed as the Blue Jaysí ace after his tremendous 2011 season, Romero has failed in every way to live up to those expectations.
Expectations were quite high heading into this season for the 27 year old southpaw. He had just completed his third season as a Major League pitcher and his third consecutive season in which he improved in all facets of the game. He gave up less hits per nine innings for the third consecutive year, along with a third consecutive year of improvement in walk rate, ERA, and ERA+. His 15-11, 2.92 ERA in 32 starts was impressive. Even more impressive was a 7.1 H/9, 1.9 HR/9, 3.2 BB/9, and 7.12 K/9. It looked as though the lefty was thriving in the AL East and ready to become the ace to fill the void that Roy Halladay left.
But, beyond his traditional statistics, there was some cause for concern regarding his ability to be an ace. His batting average on balls put in play was .242, unbelievably low and not likely to happen again. It was also well below his career BABIP of .285. In other words, he was due for some regression. Secondly, his FIP was 4.20, which means that his 2.92 ERA was a product of some good defense.
Even those warnings couldnít have forecasted just how bad Romero would be this season. After starting April with a 3-0 record and a 3.18 ERA, it seemed as if Romero would actually meet expectations that now look too high. But, since the first month Romero has struggled. Overall, in 20 starts, Romero does have an 8-6 record. This is just more proof that a win-loss record is not an indicator of pitcher success. In 122.1 innings, he has allowed 122 hits, 4.56 BB/9, 6.18 K/9, 1.25 HR/9, all adding up to a 5.22 ERA and a disturbing 5.19 FIP. And, bad luck canít really be to blame as his BABIP is .284, still below the Major League average.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of Romeroís poor season. The walk rate is one big area, but the question has to turn into why he isnít throwing strikes. His flyball and groundball rates are similar to his career norms, but his line drive rate is 19.1 percent, up more than 5 percent from last season. So, batters are making better contact.
Perhaps they are making better contact because of a velocity dip. He is averaging one mile per hour less on his fastball. That may sound insignificant, but he isnít a hard thrower to begin with. He now averages 91.2 MPH with his fastball. That should be more than enough, but Romero is actually throwing his fastball far less than he did last season. This year, he goes to the fastball just 48.5 percent of the time as opposed to 60.2 percent last season. His fastball use has dropped to do his increased reliance on his cut fastball, which is up to 18 percent as opposed to 9 percent in 2011. And, he is using his curveball about 4 percent more than he did a year ago.
The cut fastball use is interesting. Romero stated that it was a goal to develop it better at the start of the season. In yesterdayís start against the Yankees, he threw it ten times, only four for strikes. He also couldnít locate his curveball or changeup, throwing them for strikes only at a 40 percent rate. That left the Yankees sitting on his fastball. Pitch command is obviously an issue. Allowing teams to sit on a 91 MPH fastball is just asking for trouble. To his credit, Romero seems to try to be adjusting by throwing his other pitches, but if he canít command them, allowing teams to sit on the fastball isnít going to be a recipe for success.
The result of his lack of command has manifested itself in how batters attack him. Batters are swinging at his pitches less--about three percent less--and are making more contact on pitches he does throw in the strike zone. This season, he is only eliciting swings and misses on pitches in the strike zone 7.7 percent of the time. That is below his career average of 10.3 percent of the time. With batters being more selective, they are making better contact. With Romeroís walk rate at 11.8 percent, batters are making better contact with more runners on base. And, that better contact has resulted in 26 home runs allowed, already a career high.
Where Romero goes from here depends on how he wants to adjust. He could try to revert to a fastball dominant pitcher again, which should help cut his walks. Or, he could continue to refine his secondary pitches in the hopes that they improve to the point where he can be successful again. Many left handed pitchers have made similar transitions. Andy Pettitte went through a down period--although not this bad--during the middle of his career as a refined his cut fastball and his approach. Romero could be going through the same thing. Of course, perhaps he was mislabeled as an ace after what looked to be an improving career path that the secondary statistics just didnít support.
Whatever it is, the Blue Jays need Ricky Romero to be a top of the rotation pitcher. They will not be able to compete without Romero being an above average pitcher. The tools are there. Because of their injuries, they cannot remove him from the rotation. For whatever reason, he has just lost his control which has allowed hitters to key in on an average fastball.
BORN: April 17, 1975 (38)
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