FanPost

The Curious Case of Ricky Romero

Coming into the 2012 season, the Toronto Blue Jays had rather large question marks floating about their rotation. Would Brandon Morrow finally put together the season expected of him based on his peripherals? Would Dustin McGowan finally be able to make a contribution to the Blue Jays after years of rehabbing various injuries? If he wasn't able to take the mound, who would fill the 5th spot? Kyle Drabek? Deck McGuire? Chad Jenkins? Would Brett Cecil regain his 2010 form and the low 90s velocity which helped him win 15 games?

It turns out that many of these questions would be answered in unexpected ways. Morrow would become the dominant pitcher that fans for which the fans were waiting, only to be sidelined by an oblique injury that would cost him nearly half the season. Dustin McGowan would rather predictably fall to an injury as well suffering initially from a case of plantar fasciitis and later from a setback with his surgically-repaired throwing shoulder. Kyle Drabek would take Dustin's place and after being wildly effective to begin the season would become increasingly wild and knucle-whiteningly ineffective. Brett Cecil would be demoted on the eve of the season when he failed to find his lost velocity and would be replaced with Joel Carreno who had wisely been stretched out in Spring Training after finishing 2011 coming out of the Blue Jays' bullpen.

Few followers of the team would expect that the leader of the staff coming off a career-best 2.92 ERA could regress so far that by the end of July, the suggestion that he should be demoted to the minors to find his form would be floated not just by the ill-informed reactionary mouth-breathers that frequent Jays Talk but by a sound baseball mind such as Shi Davidi. Despite having a winning record at 8-7, this has only been a result of pitching wins being absolutely meaningless and also because he has enjoyed some of the best run support in baseball. Romero's ERA has ballooned to 5.75 on the season and he has lost 6 straight starts (with a 10.57 ERA). After the game, Farrell suggested that Romero could be skipped his next time through the rotation and presumably have his spot filled by J.A. Happ. (I don't think anyone had that outcome predicted before the season but if they did they'd be calling their bookie to collect their new-found fortune.)

Where did it all go wrong?

There are many explanations for Ricky's failures this season and it is hard to say what the root cause for these could be exactly. Let's look at some of the symptoms and see if they can explain his problem.

Lost Control:

Ricky has always struggled with control throughout his career and his walk rate in 2012 has been the worst of his career by far at 4.95 BB/9 after relinquishing 6 BB in an 1.1 IP in last night's start. Coming into the 2012 season, he had a 3.5 BB/9 for his career and had just finished a season where he had a career-best 3.2 BB/9. While his control had always been the knock, he had reduced his walk rate every year and the Jays hoped he would continue this trend as he entered his prime years.

Frustrating April Whitzman of JaysProspects.com to no end, Ricky has issued 18 #LoW (leadoff walks) while striking out just 15 in 129 PAs. Opponents have a .259/.380/.426 line against him to leadoff innings which sets him up for failure. Last night, Ricky walked Derek Norris to open the second. After striking out the second batter, he would walk Jemile Weeks and then the hit parade would score both. His other two walks, an intentional one to Yoenis Cespedes to load the bases and another to Chris Carter (the batter he was aiming to face) would be the end of Romero's night. This inning serves as a microcosm of Romero's season and what a horrible season it has been.

Ditto, Command:

Leading to the spike in Romero's BB rate has been his inability to throw first-pitch strikes of which he has the lowest percentage in the league. Romero has been unable to locate his fastball early in counts and as a result hitters have been able to lay off of what has historically been his best pitch, his changeup. Opponents are swinging at his changeup less than they ever have during his career and as a result he's getting less swinging strikes on it.

During the most recent broadcast, it was suggested by Buck and Tabby (brilliant baseball minds that they are) that the book was out on Ricky this year. Don't swing at the changeup because he can't throw it consistently for strikes and therefore is bound to groove a fastball because he can't command it either. It doesn't matter if you're Roger Clemens or Aaron Laffey, if you can't locate any of your pitches then you are going to get roughed up.

Luck:

With many down seasons for pitchers, the variance can be explained by good ol' fashioned bad luck which we now measure by BABIP, HR/FB, and LOB%. Unfortunately, while Romero's opponents' BABIP has spiked significantly to .289, this is not unusually high and is only slightly higher than his career mark of .285. This would suggest that he hasn't been hurt by an inordinate number of balls finding holes as compared to the league average or his past.

Where Romero has been hurt the most in 2012 has been with his HR/FB which stands at a career-high of 17.5%. This is the reason why his xFIP is more than a half run less than both his ERA and FIP. However, there can be no doubt that Romero constantly pitching behind in counts has at least contributed to opponents taking Romero yard. When ahead in the count, opponents are hitting .213/.234/.298 against Romero with 1 HR. When behind in the count, they hit .273/.473/.453 against Ricky with 6 HRs. In even counts, opponents are hitting .293/.305/.549 with 10 HRs.

Also contributing to his poor results has been Romero's inability to strand runners on the bases like he had in past seasons. In 2011, his otherwordly 79.2 LOB% helped him to outperform his FIP by nearly a run and a third. In 2012, he's stranding only 68.8% of his runners. While in the past, Ricky has relied upon inducing groundballs and having his defence turn double plays behind him, Ricky struggles cannot be explained by a sudden drop in his GB% either as he's inducing grounders at a rate tied with his career-high of 54.2%.

Pitch Selection, Velocity, and Movement:

Perhaps the answer to Ricky's troubles lies somewhere in his pitch selection, a drop in velocity, or a loss of movement on his pitches. To answer this, BrooksBaseball.net can be an invaluable tool.

2012:

Pitch

Count

Frequency

H. Mvt

V. Mvt

Mph

Fourseam (FA)

933

53%

4.73

-18.81

91.87

Sinker (SI)

214

12%

11.37

-25.11

91.52

Cutter (FC)

35

2%

0.12

-27.47

91.70

Curveball (CU)

238

13%

-7.61

-51.66

78.34

Changeup (CH)

352

20%

8.68

-34.93

83.75

Source: BrooksBaseball.net

2011:

Pitch

Count

Frequency

H. Mvt

V. Mvt

Mph

Fourseam (FA)

1606

48%

3.84

-17.39

92.72

Sinker (SI)

742

22%

9.97

-22.60

92.31

Slider (SL)

52

2%

-1.67

-33.51

85.31

Curveball (CU)

302

9%

-6.25

-53.41

77.79

Changeup (CH)

631

19%

9.33

-33.98

85.70

Source: BrooksBaseball.net

Pitch Selection:

The first thing that you notice is that Romero is using his four-seam fastball 5% more than he did in 2011 (and 7% more than he has for his entire career). However, the biggest difference in his pitch selection has been the drop in the use of his two-seamer which he has thrown for just 12% of his pitches this year as opposed to 22% in 2011. The reluctance to use the two-seamer is likely explained by his inability to throw it consistently in the strikezone. In 2011, he incurred 40.57% balls when throwing his sinker; in 2012, that number had spiked significantly to 51.87%. His called strikes on the sinker was down from ~15% to ~10%.

Buck and Tabby's narrative which I referred to above about the book being out on Romero that reads lay off the changeup turned out to be somewhat true and the book is actually in stores around the league (check Chapters/Indigo in the struggling pitchers section). Opposing batters have been swinging ~5% less on his changeup in 2012 as compared to 2011 and Romero has induced ~6% less whiffs.

Velocity/Movement:

While he's lost just about a MPH on each pitch (which should not be enough to be really significant in and of itself), he has more movement on his pitches which actually surprised me as I had heard Buck and Tabby talking much earlier in the year about how his fastballs were not moving as much as they had in the past and was likely the reason why batters were squaring up so many pitches. However, after looking at the numbers, it seems that his pitches actually have more movement this year than last which likely means not that he is now an unhittable movement machine but rather that he has too much movement on his pitches and is unable to throw them consistently for stirkes.

Intangibles:

No baseball player wants to fail on the diamond and Ricky Romero is no exception. Everyone that knows Romero will say that he's a fierce competitor that takes losing and personal setbacks home with him. While adversity can often serve as a motivator, if it lingers too long it can start to compound in the head of a guy like him. Last year, Romero had a poor start to the season but got stronger as the year progressed and wound up having a career year by traditional stats. This year started much the same and the fanbase didn't worry too much because they'd seen it before, but Ricky has not been able to string together the strong performances necessary to salvage the season. Every time he goes out and gives up 8 runs it must feel as if there is nothing he can do to right his season. Compounding this is the fact that the Jays have been decimated by injuries and as the leader of the staff, he is expected to eat innings, conserve the bullpen for the young/inexperienced/AAAA replacements, and generally give the team a good chance to win every 5 days. Being unable to lead the staff by his example cannot help the mental side of the game for Ricky.

Kurt Suzuki, Romero's battery-mate from college, is quoted in Davidi's article as saying that he thought that Romero was overthinking currently. It is hard to disagree with that sentiment. Confidence is everything in pitching and in the dugout he looks as if he's desperate enough to try ordering some off the internet from some sketchy site based in North Korea. It's hard to say what comes first the chicken or the egg; confidence or first-pitch strikes.

However, there's one spot that Ricky should not be looking for it and that's in the opinions of fans. Someone tweeted out something to the effect that Romero had blocked him because he said that he was worse than a replacement-level pitcher and should be replaced by the first bag of balls that could be found. (I'll embed the actual tweet later but inconveniently twitter is down at the moment). I admonished the fan for sending such a message and mentioning the player who I believed they thought would undoubtedly be stirred from their intentional struggles by such an uplifting and supportive message.

However, I was wrong, not in that the fan shouldn't have sent a tweet with such content (if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all) but that the fan had not mentioned @RickyRo24. In order for Romero to have found this fan's tweet, he'd have had to do a manual search and scroll through the endless tweets cursing his poor performance and pick out the ones that particularly offended him to block them. To each their own I suppose, but in my mind, Romero's best course of action is not to wind down after a poor performance by blocking every troll who utters such vitriol, but rather to cleanse his mind, watch some tape, talk to coaches, see a movie... anything that will help bring back the happy, confident, and consistent Ricky Romero we all know and love.

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