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If They Had a King of Fools, Then I Could Wear that Crown: What Should We Expect from Ricky Romero in 2010?

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For a first-round draft pick out of college, Ricky Romero struggled a bit on his way to the majors but after cracking the rotation with a strong spring before the 2009 season, he got off to a good start to his major league career before landing on the DL with a strained oblique.  Upon returning to the rotation, Romero soon regained his form and was pitching great into early July, when he began to run into some control problems.  After the All-Star Break, Romero seemed to have trouble finding the zone (3.1 BB/9 first half vs. 4.8 BB/9 second half).  Another concern is that Ricky also appeared far more hittable during the second half than in the first (.290 BAbip-against first half vs. .372 BAbip-against second half).  How much of his being more hittable can be attributed to luck and how much to skill remains to be seen.

It's not all gloom-and-doom, however.  One encouraging aspect of Romero's development through the majors thus far has been his ability to strike out batters, which he displayed in the second half almost as well as in the first (an healthy 7.1 K/9-rate in both halves, though his high second half BABIP inflated that value).  He struck out so many hitters because his change-up generated quite a few errant swings (his whiff% was seventh in the league at 22.1% compared to a league average 19.5%).  Romero finished the season with 178 IP and an FIP of 4.33, worth (according to fangraphs) about 2.7 WAR, the same number as Yovani Gallardo and Derek Lowe and about half a win less than our old friend A.J. Burnett.  I'd say that puts Ricky Romero in pretty good company . . . for 2009, at least.

But, looking ahead to 2010, what should we expect from Ricky?  Well, most people didn't consider him to be much of a breakout candidate for the 2009 season, which could work for him (because he proved the skeptics wrong) or against him (because it was a fluke), depending on how you look at it.  There are sound arguments for both sides.  On the one hand, Romero's weak second half could be due to a physical breakdown.  He pitched a lot of innings early in the season, throwing as many as 333 pitches over a three start stretch in late-June.  On the other hand, Romero pitched more than 160 innings of minor league ball in 2008 and actually finished quite strong in a late-season callup to AAA after a lacklustre performance in AA.  However, while he pitched a full MiLB season in 2008, he was injured in 2006 and 2007, so it is possible that delayed effects of his heavy workload in 2008 caused some tiredness earlier than we'd expect otherwise.

Personally, I find myself pretty optimistic about his ability to reproduce -- and perhaps even build on -- the year he had.  Remember, Ricky does not need to replicate his excellent first half to be a valuable asset to this team in 2010.  As long as he can continue to strike out batters at a rate of 7+ K/9, he can afford to yield some free passes, particularly considering his propensity for inducing groundballs, which at 54% was second in the AL to fellow rookie Rick Porcello.  Walks are always bad, but grounders with runners on can very easily turn into double plays and Romero benefitted from 30 twin killings in 2009.  As long as he keeps hitters swinging and missing and keeps the ball on the ground when they do connect, he should be okay, even if his control is a bit erratic from time to time.  Last week, Tom mentioned that Bill James projected Ricky Romero to throw 190 innings with a 5.59 ERA.  My outlook for Ricky in 2010 is -- as I mentioned before -- somewhat more optimistic, around the same number of innings, but with an FIP of about 4.20.

Special thanks to Elvis Costello for the post title, when Ricky Romero implodes next season, I'll wear it proudly.