While Tulo established himself as a top prospect at a premium position, Romero posted so-so-numbers on the farm. The Cal State Fullerton lefty struck out seven batters per nine innings, while walking 3.8 per nine and posting a 48.6 percent ground ball rate. Prior to 2009: Baseball America gave Romero the following assessment:
Late bloomer or bust? That’s the question surrounding Romero, whom the Blue Jays selected sixth overall in 2005 and signed for a club-record $2.4 million. He has spent the bulk of the past three seasons in Double-A and been passed by several lefties in the system…Romero still needs to show more consistency to reach his ceiling as a No. 3 or 4 starter.
While there are clearly worse scenarios than ending up with a first-rounder who’s a mid-to-back-end starter, the Jays likely had higher aspirations. Since that scouting report was published, however, Romero has taken his game to a different level.
In 2009, Romero turned in a quality rookie season. Tossing 178 innings, he posted rates of 7.13 K/9, 3.99 BB/9 and had a 54 percent ground ball rate. His expected FIP (xFIP) was 4.09. This year? He’s pitching like a bona fide ace. In 56.1 frames, the 25-year-old has 9.43 K/9, 3.36 BB/9, a 55.9 GB% and a 3.12 xFIP that ranks 7th among starters with at least 30 IP.
During his rookie year, 48.4 percent of Romero’s pitches were within the strike zone (the MLB average is 48-49 percent) and he garnered swings on pitches off the plate 24 percent (25-27% MLB average). In 2010, Romero has tried to bait hitters into expanding their zones, and it’s working. Placing just 44 percent of his offerings over the plate, he has induced outside swings 31.2 percent.
Romero’s contact and swinging strike rates were above average last year, but he’s in elite territory so far in 2010. Opponents put the bat on the ball 77.9 percent in ’09, compared to the 80-81% MLB average. That contact rate is down to 72.7 percent this season, and only Tim Lincecum, Brandon Morrow and Clayton Kershaw have been more adept at avoiding lumber. Romero’s swinging strike rate, 9.6 percent during his first foray in the majors, is 11.9 percent in 2010 (8-9% MLB average).
One of the keys to his success is a fantastic changeup. On May 15, Romero whiffed 12 Rangers batters on his way to a complete game shutout. From this AP article, here’s Texas 3B Michael Young describing Romero’s off-speed pitch:
It has kind of a split action to it. It’s not a straight change, it kind of has a little dive down in the zone. It’s a good pitch, it’s a plus pitch for him and you could tell he really had a lot of confidence in it.
Young’s observations look spot-on. According to Trip Somers’ Pitch F/X Tool at texasleaguers.com, Romero has gone to his 84-85 MPH change nearly one-third of the time. The bottom falls out of that pitch, and it moves more like a splitter. The average changeup has 6.1 inches of vertical movement, meaning it drops 6.1 inches less than a pitch thrown without spin. By contrast, Romero’s change has -0.3 inches of vertical movement–it falls 0.3 inches more than a pitch thrown without spin. Batters are swinging at that changeup 53.6 percent (48.3 MLB average), and are whiffing 20.7 percent (12.1 MLB average). That’s, as Young said, a plus pitch.
In 234.1 major league innings, Romero has a 3.86 xFIP. He misses bats, has decent control and induces ground balls by the bushel. Yet, he is still available in nearly one-fifth of Yahoo leagues (81 percent ownership rate). Romero likely won’t keep up this pace all season, but he has the skill set to remain a well above-average starter. Snatch this guy up if he’s still on the waiver wire.
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