Sergio Romo? More Like: Strikeouts Relievo

A pitcher even finer than even these two upstanding gents!

Quick! There’s no time to waste!

Name the five best FIP- seasons in the history of MLB. (Minimum, a scant 20 IP.)

I’d imagine your list includes Eric Gagne‘s crazy 2003 and Pedro Martinez‘s nutso 1999 season. And you’d be correct. But there’s another modern-day pitcher you’d have only guessed if you had cleverly looked at the title of this post:

1) Ed Cushman, 10 FIP- (1884, year of our lord)
2) Henry Porter, 13 FIP- (1884)
3) Eric Gagne, 20 FIP- (2003)
4) Sergio Romo, 25 FIP- (2011)
5) Pedro Martinez, 30 FIP- (1999)

I imagine there are a number of baseball fans who, like myself, had not even heard of Sergio Romo until they made him their setup man while playing Baseball Mogul 2008.

We’ll learn his name because he might be one of the greatest late-blooming relievers in the history of the game.

First, let’s take a moment to marvel over the 1884 Brewers’ then-rookies Porter and Cushman. They pitched only a combined 10 starts preceding their otherwise average careers. But together, they mustered more than 100 strikeouts in those 10 outings. Wow.

(Oh, hey, before I forget, go play with the new leader boards. They’re double-awesome.)

Last year, Romo, backed the league into a corner and slapped it around like E. Honda in Super Street Fighter Turbo 2:

In addition to a ludicrous 25 FIP- (which neutralizes for context), he had the third-best FIP in history and the lowest SIERA (which captures his peripherals more effectively than xFIP) in the stat’s young history (which only goes back to 2002).

All this from a fella who barely cracks 90 mph on his fastball!

Romo, a 28th-round pick for the San Francisco Giants, made his major league debut in 2008 as a 25-year-old. Since then, he has consistently rocked NL hitters (while rocking equally awesome facial hair).

As impressive as his previous seasons had been, Romo’s 2011 was even better. Despite struggling with some elbow and knee issues — and a trip to the 15-day DL — Romo’s 2011 statistics were off the charts. In 48 innings, he put together a season better than any one offering from Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman or John Smoltz. Of course, that’s all just rate-wise — in 2011, he had only 21 shutdowns and six meltdowns. And, at age 28, he’s no Jonny Venters or Craig Kimbrel or chicken of yonder spring.

Still, his 2011 season was nonetheless remarkable. He struck out a whopping 40% of the batters he faced, walking a laughable, video-game-esque 2.9% of his opponents. Pedaling the slider like a breaking ball gypsy, Romo allowed only five walks all season. He only once walked a batter without striking someone out — a June 14 appearance against the Arizona Diamondbacks in which he pitched only to Chris Young, who started 0-2, but worked a sevem-pitch walk. And Romo never walked more than one batter in any appearance.

That’s crazy.

Should we anticipate this success to continue? Well, like Eno Sarris pointed out, breaking ball fiends appear to be DL-prone. He missed almost 50 games in 2009 with an elbow sprain, so if regression doesn’t kill him, sliders might do it.

But even if he does stay healthy, can he maintain his stupid-good success? Probably not. Romo’s slider-only approach has never been particularly sly against left-handed batters (a career 3.90 FIP against LHB), and in 2011, he kind of got ROOGY’d, facing only 28% lefties after having faced them 35% of the time for the entirety of his career.

This past year, he had a very strong 2.87 FIP against lefties, but it was his 0.25 FIP (yes, that’s not a typo) against righties that propelled him into history books.

What’s especially flabbergasting, though, is how other signs of regression appear to be rather neutral. For instance, his BABIP was above his career norm and his HR/FB ratio was less than a percent lower than his usual rate. His LOB% (83.3%) was actually down from the previous year (86.3%), though it still seemed a touch high (his career rate is 76.6%, but he seemed to either settle in the 60s or 80s).

Also, with a 17% swinging strike rate, it seems likely he can maintain a high strikeout rate, but a 40% K-rate is a not-oft repeated feat. Either his K% will normalize, or his swinging strikes will — but probably both.

Romo seems to have genuinely poured on the Nasty Sauce despite being drafted in the courtesy rounds, having never been a prospect, turning 28 last March and having received almost no national media attention during what might be one of the finest pitching seasons in MLB history.

And though he is almost guaranteed to never repeat his 2011 success, San Francisco has to be happy with their elite, facial-hair-celebrating setup man. Because — at least for now — he’s one of the best.

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

36 Responses to “Sergio Romo? More Like: Strikeouts Relievo”

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  1. Chops says:

    Brad, you didn’t even try with that title.

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  2. Scout Finch says:

    What is it ? The no-dot slider ? The pin-point control ? The show-me change up ?

    He’s been nasty, but how nasty will he be in a closers role? He’s usually put in a game situation with optimal chance for success, ie, facing righties.

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  3. oldjacket says:

    I made a barchart about this about 3/4 of the way through the season.

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  4. Evan says:

    E. Honda’s wall of fist has nothing on Chun Li’s wall of kick.

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  5. Eminor3rd says:

    Brad, want to join my current Baseball Mogul 2012 league? We have a couple open teams and no one is getting on the SM forum these days.

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  6. Barkey Walker says:

    Can you really use FIP for pre WWII games?

    In the dead ball era, home runs were non-existant, and a K wasn’t that different from a GB and it would be more appropriate to look at balls that left the infield vs those that did not.

    Since we don’t have this data, it would probably make sense to decrease the value of a K while vastly increasing the value of a home run and a walk.

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    • An excellent question! I’m not sure.

      I did use FIP- in an effort to control for era differences, but the logic behind FIP and DIPS in general may be quite different the in the pre-WWII era. Good point.

      *puts on Thinking Stocking*

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    • GMH says:

      In 1884, the pitching “box” was only 50 feet from home plate. Advantage: pitchers. No wonder the law firm of Cushman and Porter was mowing ‘em down.

      But pitchers had to deliver the ball in a sidearm manner below the shoulder. And batters were permitted to request a high pitch or a low pitch. If the pitcher didn’t deliever a pitch in the requested hitter’s zone, it was a ball. Foul balls did not count as strikes. Huge Advantage: hitters

      Seven balls equaled a walk. Advantage: Pitcher. So I guess it all evens out in 1884.

      And to throw another wrinkle in sabermetrics, a foul ball caught by a fielder on one hop was an out. If we could go back in time and measure UZR, we’d almost have to include foul territory.

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      • You have just totally shattered my universe.

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      • Barkey Walker says:

        It’s not about advantage pitchers/hitters FIP- takes care of that. It is about how the value of a walk, K, and HR have changed through time.

        I know very little (compared to you, apparently, nothing) about the era except some things about Walter Johnson. I know, for example, that he dominated without striking out. For example, he lead the league in 1921 with 4.9 K/9. Now, that rate would put him squarely in the 4/5 starter role–scoring in the game was just different (though his 0.2 HR/9 would look pretty dominating, presumably FG would be claim it was unsustainable).

        The FIP weights are from recent games, they need a decade adjustment.

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  7. GMH says:

    Here’s what I see from Sergio Romo. His mechanics haven’t really changed since his college days at Mesa State when he was mowing down RMAC hitters left and right. I can see clearly why he is so tough against righties. His back faces the hitter for what must seem like an eternity until his front side finally opens, so the hitter sees the number 54 on Romo’s jersey but nothing much else. Romo keeps his front side very closed to the hitter through most of his entire delivery. He breaks his hands fairly late which, again, has the effect of keeping his front side closed to the hitter. And then he uses his pitching arm like a sling. Instead of taking his pitching arm somewhat straight back toward second base and then up into the loaded position, his right arm basically swings rapidly toward first base. He hides the ball very well from the hitter. Basically, the hitter sees the pitching arm swing back toward first and then it seemingly disappears as Romo gets his pitching arm in the locked and loaded position. Romo then continues that motion so his pitching arm swings round toward third base. He leads with his elbow and has almost a sidearm delivery. To a right handed hitter, it must seem like the ball is being released from the shortstop position. Romo is also only about 5’10”, so his low arm angle must seem even lower to a hitter – which probably makes it more difficult to pick up. And his “slider” may be better characterized as a fast curve or slurve. It breaks a lot more than a conventional slider. And given Romo’s low arm angle, it probably resembles the breaking ball Pedro Martinez relied upon in his prime. To a right-handed hitter, that breaking pitch would probably seem to start behind the hitter’s head, and it breaks very late. A lot of righties are going to buckle on such a pitch, even if they are sitting on it.

    I cannot imagine the incredible amount of torque that Romo generates from this uncoventional delievery. That’s probably why at 5’10” and ony 180 or so pounds he can still deliver a ball with decent velocity. He’s not Daniel Hudson, but 89 to 90 mph with movement and complimented by a sick breaking ball is nothing to slouch at.

    I also see why his mechanics may make him susceptible to a catastrophic arm injury. His pitching elbow gets rather high in his delivery – well above the plane of his shoulder, and that combined with the rather long route his pitching arm takes before releasing the ball (basically, his arm travels nearly 180 degrees from first base to third base) makes him susceptible to a timing problem. And that sort of timing problem puts a lot of additional strain on the pitching elbow and shoulder joints. I think that is far more concerning than the number of breaking pitches he throws. Steve Carlton threw a ton of curves and sliders over a career that encompassed more than 5,000 innings pitched, but his mechanics were flawless and he had a power pitcher’s frame. Romo doesn’t have those things going for him.

    I see Romo having a brilliant but short career, which is an all too familar career path for relief pitchers. But he’s a great guy with a great story – he is the son of Mexican immigrants, and he played for a couple of small colleges and wasn’t drafted until the 28th round. He was considered too small to pitch in the Big Leagues and he was never a guy who lit up a radar gun. In interviews, Romo still has a bewildered enthusiasm; he seems geniunely thrilled and surprised that he is actually pitching in the Major Leagues when the odds were so stacked against him. So he’s a hard guy not to root for.

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  8. Tom says:

    Wait wait wait

    Chris Young drew a walk?!

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    • GMH says:

      Chris Young walked 80 times this year and his BB% was 12.1%. The last three seasons he’s been above an 11% walk rate. The dude has his flaws, but drawing a walk isn’t one of them.

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  9. ExtraBases says:

    I knew romo was having a great season but not this great. Your right he isn’t really talked about much but those are some ridiculous numbers. 70 k’s to 5 bb’s and 1.50 era. Pretty unbelievable, he had similar numbers last year as well. Its crazy he doesn’t get more recognition.

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  10. Colm says:

    Doesn’t this column illustrate, more than anything else, how it’s possible to cherry-pick stats in order to overstate how good someone is? Romo has had a great season for a middle reliever who’s been used primarily against same handed hitters – but it doesn’t belong in the same frame AT ALL as Pedro Martinez in 1999.

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  11. stjz says:

    Can’t see him repeating those numbers even if he’s used even smarter (I mean if he doesn’t see any lefties at all). Though this season’s accomplishments shouldn’t be taken away from him by any means

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  12. Dan says:

    How did this guy pitch fewer than 50 innings this year? Could easily have been closer to 3 WAR than 2. Puzzling.

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  13. Scout Finch says:

    It’s of interest to note Bochy went with Casilla after Wilson got shut down and not Romo; keeping him in that set-up role.

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  14. Mike B. says:

    Opposing batters can neutralize Romo’s 100-hand slap slider simply by crouching and using leg sweep (lower-right button).

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  15. Hurtlocker says:

    If only the Giants could have scored a few runs while Romo was shutting everyone down.

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  16. Herbalist says:

    The back 2/5ths of the rotation and the Zito question: The case for giving the veteran 38 year old Guillermo Mota a chance to compete for a starting role

    With Ryan Vogelsong unlikely to begin the season in the rotation following a fairly serious offseason weightlifting injury, and the trade of Jonathon Sanchez for Melky Cabrera, the Giants currently have a need for two starters to follow the triumvirate of Bumgarner, Cain and Lincecum in the most heralded rotation in baseball west of Philly.

    This is not an article about Zito, his strengths and weaknesses, or anything else anyone can say about the guy. This is about objectively analyzing the best starting pitcher available currently to fill the 5th spot (lets assume that Vogelsong returns soon and is effective).

    In this post we will completely ignore respective players salaries, contract statuses, and history of big league achievement. A very simple concept that seems lost on many big league front offices, Sabean’s included, is that of sunk costs. Sunk costs are simply costs that cannot be removed and are thus irrelevant. What Zito is making is irrelevant. So is the fact that he won the 2002 Cy Young (which Pedro deserved but that’s not the point).

    You are probably thinking, moving a 38-year-old reliever who in 717 career big league appearances has never once started a game into the rotation to replace a Cy Young Award winner making $20.00 million a year is absolute horseshit.

    However, looking beyond this superficial argument reveals good reason to at least give Mota a chance to compete for the starting role:

    On April 16th, 2011 Mota was called on to relive the injured Zito. He pitched the following line

    W,4.1 innings pitched, 53 pitches, 33 strikes, 4Ks, 0BB’s, 3 hits, 1 earned run.

    On June 21st in relief of Madison Bumgarner, Mota pitched the following line in a no decision:

    4.2 innings pitched, 61 pitches, 38 strikes, 3K’s, 0BB’s, 3 hits and no earned runs.

    These two long relief stints were made without the conditioning that a starter is able to do between starts knowing that he won’t be summoned from the bullpen before his 5th day turn in the rotation.

    What strikes me as impressive in Zito’s performance is his high strikeout to walk ratio 7:0, and his pitch count efficiency; he was able to throw 9 innings on just 114 pitches. Yes the sample is small, but it accentuates the following points that demonstrate Mota can be more than a middle reliever:

    1. He has 3 quality pitches, a fastball that averaged 92.8 mph last year, a slider that gets lots of swings and misses against righties and a solid changeup to keep lefties off balance.

    2. Because he has these three pitches Mota can face the same batter multiple times per game without seeking severely diminished returns as the batter adjusts. Sergio Romo could not be a starter. His slider is deceptive, but could not be thrown to the same hitters 3-4 times per game. Additionally, Mota in the past has thrown a splitter and a curveball, two pitches that he could work in more as a starter to keep hitters off balance the second or third time through the lineup.

    3. Mota is effective against both lefties and righties because of his arsenal of pitches. Lefties hit .234 off Mota in 90AB’s while righties hit .243 in 200AB’s in 2010. This was not simply an aberration of 2011, in his career Mota has allowed hits to righties at a .241 clip and lefties at a .231 clip. While OPS tells a slightly different story, it is clear that Mota is not a bullpen arm like Ramon Ramirez or Romo who is really only effective against righties and would likely draw lineups of 7-8 left handed batters as a starter. His arsenal of pitches including the changeup makes him less susceptible to platoon spits.

    4. He has a rubber arm and could handle the transition to pitching in the rotation. Mota threw 80.1 innings in 2011 compared with Zito’s 53. At his advanced age, the Giants are really not concerned if Mota’s arm were to blow out after a season or two in the rotation. However, based on his career durability (he once threw 105 innings out of the bullpen in one season and has never needed Tommy John), I would place my money on Mota being able to make 30 starts in 2012 if given the opportunity.

    While Mota is certainly not the next coming of Doc Halladay, there is a good chance that he would be significantly more effective than Barry Zito, who at best given reports about his current velocity in the low 80’s could be Jaime Moyer of 10 years ago, and more likely worse given his lack of command and uncanny feel for his low 80’s fastball that Moyer once possessed. Additionally, who is to say that Moyer always belonged in a major league starting rotation? The guy threw a lot of very mediocre innings, and played the game a long time, which is to be respected, but he was never a guy I would want taking the ball for my team every fifth day.

    All told Mota in 2011 produced a K/BB ratio of 8.6/3.4=2.57 compared to Zito’s 5.4/4=1.33. Mota posted a 3.81 ERA compared to Zito’s 5.76 mark. Zito simply does not have the stuff anymore to get big league hitters out consistently.

    The point is that even if Mota could just be an average big league starter, he would still be significantly better than Barry Zito.

    These is an instance where the front office could be creative, stretch Mota out and give him a chance to compete for the job especially because the team will most likely need a spot starter while Vogey recovers. Let Surkamp season in AAA where he belongs (you don’t last long in the big leagues when you are walking more than you strike out as Surkamp did in 2011) and let the Mota experiment begin, after all what’s the worst that could happen? My money is on him helping the Giants win more ballgames than Zito could, which is the point right? Or wait is it to make veteran players on bloated contracts happy?

    Feel free to add a comment especially if you can back it up with empirical or statistical evidence

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  17. Herbalist says:

    check out my blog at for more analysis on the Giants

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