As we now sit a week away from the Blue Jays' home opener, fans continue to panic about Ricky Romero's numbers. With Romero's 2012 performance in mind, it's fair to be at least a bit concerned. There are, however, many examples of pitchers being horrendously awful in the springtime, only to rebound and have fantastic seasons. There are also many examples of the opposite - pitchers being excellent up until April, and then when the real games start, the pitchers fall apart.
Of course you also have all the in-betweens too! Some pitchers actually pitch like themselves in the spring!
I've taken a look at some of the best and worst pitchers by fWAR over the past five years, to see how some players' spring ERAs correlate with their season ERAs (spoiler alert: they don't). We'll also look at K/9 and BB/9, which appear to actually have some relevance. As always, please click on any term for a link to an explanation.
Additionally, please keep in mind that I am only highlighting certain players for understanding purposes. In the study linked above, there is a very large sample size.
2009 Zack Grienke
Spring: 3-3, 9.21 ERA, 8.58 K/9, 2.86 BB/9, 28.1 IP
Season: 16-8, 2.16 ERA, 9.50 K/9, 2.00 BB/9, 9.3 fWAR
Grienke's 2009 season was unbelievable - In terms of fWAR, it was the best season by a pitcher since Randy Johnson's 2004 season. His spring, however, was really just not good. Grienke would go on to win the Cy Young award that year, for what it's worth. Note that the K and BB rates from the spring tell a different story than the 9.21 ERA.
2008 Tim Lincecum
Spring: 1-0, 4.50 ERA, 12.00 K/9, 3.00 BB/9, 18.0 IP
Season: 18-5, 2.62 ERA, 10.51 K/9, 3.33 BB/9, 7.5 fWAR
Ah, back when Tim Lincecum was really something. This was the year of his breakout season at age 24. Again, his spring ERA doesn't inspire much confidence, but the strikeout and walk rates indicate better things to come.
2011 Ricky Romero
Spring: 1-2, 7.91 ERA, 9.31 K/9, 4.19 BB/9, 19.1 IP
Season: 15-11, 2.92 ERA, 7.12 K/9, 3.20 BB/9, 2.9 fWAR
Despite his 4.20 FIP in 2011, Romero somehow managed to put up an extremely respectable 2.92 ERA. Unlike Tim Lincecum and Zack Grienke, Romero's K/9 and BB/9 rates do not necessarily lead to predictions of a breakout year. Still, Romero has never necessarily been a swing-and-miss guy, which separates him from the other two pitchers here.
2012 Ervin Santana
Spring: 1-0, 2.08 ERA, 8.31 K/9, 3.12 BB/9, 17.1 IP
Season: 9-13, 5.16 ERA, 6.72 K/9, 3.08 BB/9, -0.9 fWAR
2012 Ervin Santana pitched so poorly that 2013 Ervin Santana ended up on the Royals. The 2012 spring ERA was excellent, however the ratios again hinted at a poor upcoming season. His spring K/9 of 8.31 and BB/9 of 3.12 were slightly better and slightly worse, respectively, than his 2011 stats: 7.01 K/9 and 2.83 BB/9.
2008 Brandon Backe
Spring: 0-1, 5.59 ERA, 4.19 K/9, 2.33 BB/9, 19.1 IP
Season: 9-14, 6.05 ERA, 6.86 K/9, 4.16 BB/9, -0.9 fWAR
Statistically, in 2011, Bronson Arroyo had the worst year by any qualified pitcher since, well, a long time ago. But hey, who's this Brandon Backe guy? Over parts of eight seasons from 2002 - 2009, Backe had a career 5.23 ERA, 6.2 K/9, and 4.1 BB/9. Yet, inexplicably, he was allowed to pitch 166.2 innings for the Houston Astros. The Astros weren't even a bad team by any measure, going 86-75 and missing out on the wild card spot by four games. In this case, Backe's spring ERA was right around where it would be for the season, and again, take a look at his spring K/9 and BB/9 rates.
2012 Ricky Romero
Spring: 2-0, 0.00 ERA, 8.18 K/9, 1.64 BB/9, 11 IP
Season: 9-14, 5.77 ERA, 6.17 K/9, 5.22 BB/9, 0.5 fWAR
Not much to say here. We know how 2012 turned out for Romero, and this appears to be one of the times in which K/9 and BB/9 doesn't help with predicting season performance. However, again, the spring ERA can be ignored completely.
Ricky Romero's 2013 Spring
Pre-Tuesday's Start: 0-1, 7.27 ERA, 6.23 K/9, 7.27 BB/9, 8.2 IP
Well...that's uh...not necessarily reassuring. Granted, as with other spring stats, there is the obvious Small Sample Size issue to deal with here, but the numbers aren't necessarily good. Last year, as mentioned above, Romero put up a 5.77 ERA with a 6.17 K/9 and a 5.22 BB/9, so to see those numbers take a further step back is not really the result I was hoping for when I started writing this.
Keep an eye on Romero's strikeouts and walks in today's outing.
I personally am one to learn towards the "spring training stats don't matter" argument, but I suppose that the lesson here is that while ERA should really not be looked at, K/9 and BB/9 rates can in fact help in predicting a possible breakout year.
If Ricky Romero can somehow regain his ability to throw more strikes (and therefore have nicer looking K/9 and BB/9 numbers), then he can potentially be the great pitcher that we saw two years ago. Let's hope that he can in fact find a way to be more like his 2011 self rather than the Romero of 2012.