The history of Ricky Romero is well documented. Prior to becoming a Toronto Blue Jays regular, he was the Jays’ 2006 First Round selection. At Cal State-Fullerton, Romero helped lead his team to a 2004 National Championship. He was rated highly and when the 6th overall pick came up, the Jays snatched him up.
What followed Romero were several years of inconsistency. Initially thought to be on the fast track to the big leagues at 20, he struggled on virtually every level. Romero’s biggest problem was throwing strikes. At AA, Romero was 10-18 with a 4.97 ERA, 1.56 WHIP. If you think there’s got to be a mistake, Fangraphs has his FIP at 4.50. There’s no mistake. In AAA, he wasn’t much better. He was still plagued by control problems, with 20 BB over 42.2 IP.
Still, four years after former Blue Jays GM J.P. Riccardi drafted him, unjustifiably, he let Romero off the leash. In 2009, Romero impressed in Spring Training enough for the Blue Jays to warrant him a slot in the rotation. In this BP Prospectus Q&A, Romero credits a lot of his new-found success to his AA pitching coach, Dave LaRoche, as well as former Blue Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg. He also references watching Roy Halladay‘s delivery and how Halladay repeated the same motion again and again. Romero says that the point he wanted to be at.
From 2009-2011, we all watched Romero grow as a pitcher. Each year, his K/9 stayed consistently around 7.2 while he improved his BB/9 from 3.99 to 3.51 to 3.20. His WHIP dropped to 1.14, which, when compared to his minor league numbers, seemed incomprehensible. Factor in run support, according to baseballreference.com, Romero’s 4.5 runs per 27 outs was more than enough based off his ERA.
I mentioned some of Romero’s major league numbers being incomprehensible when compared to his minor league stats. Looking at his 2011 season, maybe 2011 was a facade? Despite a 2.92 ERA, Romero’s xFIP sat at 3.80, while his tERA was much worse at 4.17. In fact, the xFIP, FIP (4.20), and FIP- (102) all hinted red flags during Romero’s “stellar season. Then there was 2012. Why did things fall apart so quickly?
MYTHS: I read this on twitter and I wish I could dig out the tweet. A follower said that Romero was no longer throwing pitches in the dirt. He believed it had everything to do with JPA’s poor blocking ability. This is false. Here are some pitching charts, compliments of BrooksBaseball.net, of performances against Baltimore (7/27/2011) and Tampa Bay (8/02/2011).
Both outings clearly show Romero had no problems throwing in the dirt. I had a pitching graphic for of a poor outing against Boston, but it wouldn’t upload for some reason. Here’s the link. It’s no different than the two above. The strategy was get ahead in the count, use secondary pitches to get hitters out. Romero, from 2009-2011, was pretty good at making this happen. So what really happened to Romero?
FACTS: The first thing to point out is this:
1.) Prior to 2009, Romero had never been one to pitch deep into a ball game. Thanks to his high walk rate, that typically meant high pitch count. In his five seasons in the minors, Romero only pitched over 150 IPs just once, in 2008 (164.1). The years before that, 93 (2007), 125.2 (2006), and 30.2 (2005). Why is this significant? In the years that followed, the “bulldog” may not have been a bulldog, or an innings eater if you will. In 2009, if you include the 14 innings of minor league rehab ball, Romero, threw for a total of 192. That number jumped up to 210 in 2010 and 225 for 2011. It’s a significant boost over a three year stretch that saw Romero average 104 IPs per year, prior to 2009.
2.) Romero’s release point abandoned him. Again, compliments to BrooksBaseball.net Pitch f/x tool, have a look at his release points from different games in 2011, 2012, and 2013 (each chart will be marked).
Now notice the change in 2012. Slightly earlier release point.
Now notice the sudden loss in confidence. Two different arm slots for pitches start to emerge along with varying release points. No mechanical changes were noticed from any video.
Pete Walker, we have a problem… 2 drastically differentiating arm slots (which can be considered a “tell”), inconsistent release points, and a drop off in fastball velocity as well as drastic drop off in fastball strike percentage.
So how does this happen? Well as stated above, there were no mechanical changes other than the arm slot change by Romero. This change reduced velocity as well as accuracy. It IS argumentatively disputable that these arm slot changes could have been by Romero’s doing due to 1.) the possible recommendation of Walker. 2.) Romero’s own choice due to decline in confidence, or 3.) Romero battled an injury. The latter two possibilities probably ring most true. Romero did have surgery in the 2012-2013 offseason. It was obvious to most that watched the games, a more-than-usual amount of deep breaths made by Romero while on the mound. That’s not typical of a guy in control.
Also, while the surgery to his elbow could reveal a reason in dip in velocity (it wasn’t much from 93-94 down to 90-92), his knee injuries may be more telling.
3.) Unfortunately, here comes probably the most embarrassing charge a person can make of an athlete. In 2012, Romero looked out of shape. I HATE saying that. Being an athlete myself, there’s a source of pride that doesn’t want you to admit something like being out of shape, but this picture speaks for itself.
Romero clearly looks like he’s carrying extra weight in this side-by-side. It’s not muscle. It’s not a mistake. What you see there is a gut. Now, it’s very possible that his knees could have been a problem in the offseason, which could have led to a weight gain, but chances are, it is the other way around. How does fat weight gain effect your body? Ask John Lackey, Jon Lester, and Josh Beckett: The Chicken and Beer trio. It CAN alter your release point.
Lackey never experienced a decline in velocity until the Tommy John injury derailed him for the entire 2012 season. When he came back in 2013, as you can see above, the release point was different vertically as well as horizontally, but the velocity was there. While this could be attributed to the Tommy John surgery, it could also be attributed the weight loss. Red Sox skipper, John Farrell, stated back when pitchers and catcher reported in February of 2013, that Lackey had looked to have lost 12-15 lbs. That may be putting it mildly.
Muscle memory is a funny thing. It’s talked about quite often and there are subconscious triggers for using when it comes to sports. I guess the best way to explain it is from my own experience. Way back during my collegiate soccer days, I was a svelte 155 lbs and had a cannon right foot that was very accurate, especially during indoor season. When you’re trying to replicate hitting a particular spot on net, your body begins to develop memory for the slot and angle, to a point where you can do it naturally. Any athlete playing a sport that deals with accuracy and precision goes through the process of repetition to create this natural memory. Adding weight can change the way your body remembers to hit a location, especially when your core is involved. A lack of practice can do that as well. As I got older, I put on weight. I wasn’t playing at a highly competitive level anymore, except at the dinner table. I gained weight and at one point, got up to 220 lbs. Aside from lowering my endurance and slowing my speed came numerous injuries, especially to my knees. It also changed my ability to place the ball where I wanted it. Even when I did practice, it didn’t matter. Some of that was injury related, a lot of it was from being out of shape.
To say Romero isn’t practicing would be me speculating. To say Romero has put on weight would not be speculating. A picture is worth 1000 words and that picture with his shirt flying untucked from his belt screams just one: FAT
So, how does Toronto revive Ricky Romero? That is the million dollar question. Though it seemed like his 2013 season was a wash, there is good news, especially based off his last two MLB outings. The arm slot seems to be somewhat consistent again, even if his release point isn’t.
In this outing above, Romero line was as followed: 2 IP 2 H 1 ER 1 R 1 BB 1 K 38 pitches, 23 strikes. Nothing really jumps out at you with that, but there are signs of encouragement. Romero’s average FB sat at 91 MPH and maxed at 94 (94.3) MPH (2011 AVG FB: 92 MPH, MAX FB: 95 MPH). The arm slot and release is very similar to that of his 2011 season.
In Romero’s final outing of the season, Romero went 1 IP 2 H 2 ER 2 R 1 HRA 2 BB 0 K 25 pitches, 10 strikes. As you can see, this is still a work in progress. In the minors, after ditching his “mechanical changes,” Romero would be effective for a few innings and then implode. Like I said, this is a work in progress. Above, you can see the release point is off, yet his FB velocity was still at 91 MPH, topping out at 94 (93.8) MPH. He threw many less strikes and he paid for it.
Looking at these two outings further, while they have had mixed results, one thing has been consistent: Romero has hardly used his secondary pitches. On September 10th, he only threw 2 offspeed pitches. In his September 25th start, only 5 offspeed. If you’re wondering why, the answer is Walker is trying to regain Romero’s confidence. As Romero struggled to throw strikes in 2012, he could not only not use his secondary pitches due to often being behind in the count, but he also had to abandon them altogether. Mixing in pitches while dealing with release point issues only further complicates the matter because, obviously, it involves releasing the ball from different points, as well as using different grips. Good thing there’s a whole offseason for Romero to continue to work on this, as he is improving.
Also improving seems to be Romero’s weight. Here’s a good look from September 10th. I know it all sounds so simple. I’m quick to remind people I’m far from any expert. However, my knowledge not just for watching, but also playing the game, is quite high. The game is always about adjustments. It’s not like at half time of a football game. On the mound, it’s about constantly adjusting. It’s a constant chess match between you and the batter, which is why approach is so highly underrated. It’s not just natural talent you’re watching on the field. It’s an honed craft. For Romero, it’s about honing his craft once again and being fully dedicated to it. If September 10th is a sign of things to come, I’m genuinely excited about the possibility of seeing the old Ricky Romero back. It might seem far fetched, but if you’ve made it this far, you can clearly see Romero is closer to reviving his career than the general consensus believes.