Right now, like as this is being written, Ricky Romero is in the process of getting bombed by the Red Sox. The 27-year-old lefty just finished an inning in which he gave up a double to Dustin Pedroia between two walks before an error and a few groundouts allowed singles from Mike Aviles and Darnell McDonald to plate some runs. Six runs in all. So far all the balls in play have been ground balls — his bailiwick — but something is still off.
Going into the start today, the primary culprits were not at fault. The batting average on balls in play that Romero has allowed this year is higher than the one he allowed last year, yes. But the ‘new’ number is .252 and last year’s number was .241. That’s not the problem. Neither can we blame a velocity drop. Well, he’s down a tick from 92.1 mph to 91.1 mph, but his career velocity is 91.5 mph on the fastball. That’s not the problem, either. He’s using his curveball a little more than he has in the past, but are we going to blame his two-run difference in ERA on 55 extra curveballs this year? It doesn’t look like he’s altered his pitching mix much otherwise, so that doesn’t look like the problem.
The obvious difference comes in his walk rate, and even in today’s big inning, the walks were a problem. Romero walked 10.3% in his rookie season, then he walked 9.3% in his decent followup, and 8.7% in his breakout season last year. Now his walk rate is at a career-worst 11.3%. You have to go back to his first shot at Double-A (in 2007) to find a walk rate that bad. Look at his strike zone stats, and you’ll notice that he’s close to league average at finding the zone (43.3% this year, 45.4% career, 45.4% is the league average this year). It’s probably not those 32 pitches outside the zone that separate him from league average. He is, however, showing a career low in first-strike percentage (52.8%) that’s well below league average (59.7%) and his own average (57%). Perhaps a renewed emphasis on strike one would solve many of Romero’s woes.
On the other hand, his current walk rate is not an extreme outlier. His career walk rate in the minor leagues was 9.7%, which is worse than average. But he was getting enough ground balls and strikeouts to make that walk rate work then. It’s not working that well right now, and there’s a general regression in his other peripherals that is contributing to the problem.
His swinging strike rate is under league average for the first time (8.0%, 8.9% is league average, 9.2% for his career). So it makes sense that he’s lost a couple ticks of his strikeout rate (16.9% this year, 18.9% career). His ground-ball rate is at a career-worst (53.4%, 54.5% career). He’s giving up a career-worst number of home runs off of his fly balls (17.1% HR/FB, 12.5% career). Some of this is luck. None of it, by itself, would sink a player completely. All of it, together, has reduced his effectiveness.
Lastly, there’s the issue of expectations. Pitch to a 2.92 ERA in the AL East over 225 innings and you’re an ace. Pitch to a 4.20 FIP/3.80 xFIP/3.78 SIERA in the AL East over 225 innings, though, and you’re a horse. Considering those numbers describe the same season, perhaps we should just have been expecting a horse. And, given the Blue Jays’ pitching health woes right now, perhaps it’s okay if their ace is actually a horse right now.