It's Only for the Things that Matter, Only for the Things that Really Count: Keys to the 2010 Season and Beyond, Part IV

This is the fourth part of a series of posts on the keys to the Toronto Blue Jays 2010 season.  Part I, where we introduced and laid out all the keys, is here.  Part II, in which we discussed the importance of Kyle Drabek's continued emergence as a future ace, is here.  Part III, which focused on growth of Aaron Hill and Adam Lindis here.  In Part IV, we will be looking into the continued contributions from Ricky Romero.

3. Ricky Romero -- Like Adam Lind, if Ricky struggles this year, 2009 could be a fluke.  Aside from the Jays long-term goals, given the injury problems and youth of this staff, the rotation is likely going to lean heavily on Romero this season.  If we can't get 200 solid innings out of him, it's going to be tough to stay out of last place.  A lot of guys experience sophomore jinx, but -- both in 2010 and going forward -- it's important for this team that Romero avoid it.  I think the importance of Ricky's performance has been downplayed in certain circles, but the continued success of the former first-rounder is paramount.

 

A lot of folks don't realize just how good Ricky Romero actually was in 2009.  In spite of a WHIP of 1.52, as opposed to an AL-average of 1.39, amongst qualified starters, Romero was ranked 13th in the American League according to Fangraphs xFIP.  Although his groundball-inducing tendencies have been most celebrated (as they rightly should be, Romero ranked second in AL GB-rate and first in GB/FB-ratio), Romero succeeded not just by inducing grounders, but by maintaining a strong strikeout-rate (7.13 K/9).  Although a cursory glance at his WHIP might cause folks to assume that Romero's success was fluky, that does not seem so as you delve a little deeper.  Similar to Part II's keys, Aaron Hill and Adam Lind, Romero's importance stems from both immediate contributions he will provide the team and contributions he will provide over the next several seasons.  Romero is the team's only starter to pitch more than 170 innings in 2009 (Brian Tallet, who few of us hope to see remain in the rotation long, pitched 160), so the team will lean heavily on him in 2010.  Looking ahead to the future, specifically the candidates the Jays have for their rotation, people might discount the importance of Romero, but an xFIP of 4.09 shows that Romero is already a solid major leaguer.  So what exactly is the outlook for Ricky?

 

Fangraphs conveniently lists several 2010 projections side-by-side and, for Ricky, there is quite a bit of variation by projection system.  Bill James projects Romero to pitch 190 innings, but to be quite ineffective, with a 5.59 ERA and 4.72 FIP.  The Marcel system, which is a computer modeling method that takes only major league playing record, injury potential, age adjustment and regression to the mean into account, on the other hand, sees Romero pitching fewer innings (just 149) but being much more effective (4.47 ERA, 4.39 FIP) during them.  Early this offseason, I predicted that Romero would pitch around 190 innings with a 4.20 FIP.  If Romero matches that, he should be worth about 3.5 wins above replacement in 2010.  In 2009, Blue Jays pitchers threw a combined total of 1451 innings, so if Romero can pitch 13% of those at an FIP better than league-average, he'll be very useful to a team that most people think will be hard-pressed to win just 75 games.  In his first start this season, Romero did a pretty good job staying in the zone (66 strikes of 103 pitches and two walks in seven innings), which was really the one thing he struggled with last season, when he was 2nd in the AL to A.J. Burnett in walk-rate.  It's early yet, but that doesn't mean we can't be at least a little bit encouraged by it.  With any luck, he'll look even better in Skydome tonight.

As long as Romero's projections over the next several years go, it's difficult enough to tell where he'll be at the end of 2010, let alone 2012 or 2013.  However, Romero is just 25 years old this season, so there's plenty of room for him to grow.  Earlier, we mentioned that Romero's xFIP was 13th in the AL, in spite of the fact that his walk-rate (at 3.99/9IP) was 2nd-highest in the league.  If Romero can improve his walk-rate by 0.5 to 3.49 BB/9, all other peripherals remaining constant, his xFIP would drop almost a quarter of a run, which would have made him one of the ten best starters in the AL last year.  Of course, better control could likely come at the cost of fewer strikeouts or groundballs, but it's also possible that Romero could issue fewer than 3.49 bases on balls per nine innings.  As long as Romero remains as effective as he was last year, there should be space in the Jays' rotation for him.  A three-win starter -- particularly one who is worth three wins in the AL East -- is extremely useful to pencil into the back end of your rotation.  There were only 23 of them in the American League last year.  Considering that there are 14 teams in the AL, the 23rd best starter should actually be a #2 starter on an average team or a #3 on an above-average.  Of course, if the Jays want to compete, being merely average isn't going to be enough, but if our #4 is as good as an average team's #2, I'd feel pretty confident in this team's rotation.  And that's assuming Ricky doesn't really grow all that much over the next few years.  Pitching in the toughest division in baseball, he's already 14th among AL starters in strikeout-rate and second in groundball-rate.  If he can just get the walks down a little bit, there really isn't much preventing him from becoming a star for years to come.

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