Ricky Romero on a Roll

Not that long ago, Ricky Romero was known to Blue Jays fans as the answer to the following trivia question: “who did Toronto take with the sixth pick in the 2005 draft instead of Troy Tulowitzki?”

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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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

9 Responses to “Ricky Romero on a Roll”

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  1. Skip says:

    RR Cool Jay

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  2. chris says:

    I know this is off topic for Ricky Romero, but do you see Jered Weaver finally becoming the ace that he has teased being for so long? His ERA is a bit lower than his FIP and xFIP but do you see him keeping this up for the rest of year?

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  3. Spifficus says:

    The pitch f/x system at the Roger’s Centre looks like it needs some calibration – At quick glance, everything’s about 3 inches lower for his home starts vs on the road. His Changeup, for example, seems between 2 and 3 vertical on the road (still more ‘sink’ thank average), but at home has ranged from -4 to 0 (with everything else making a similar progression upward over the last month). It’s easy to spot why Romero was nearly able to throw a no-hitter… He even had a knuckle-ball going. (his four-seam fastball from 4/13 had less RPMs than an average Wakefield knuckleball. A 91mph knuckler? No wonder he has 13 wild pitches so far).

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    • joser says:

      That rotation thing is pretty interesting, but the conventional wisdom amongst knucklers is that velocity does not benefit a knuckleball (beyond some minimum, obviously) — the stray air currents that can help it “dance” have less effect on the path of the ball. Though a very slow-rotating fastball might pick up some jitter from the seams passing in and out of the airstream, I suppose.

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