Heading into the 2009 season, Toronto lefty Ricky Romero was viewed as something of a disappointment. The Blue Jays ponied up $2.4 million to make Romero the 6th overall pick in the 2005 draft out of Cal State Fullerton. Many fans and analysts derided the selection, noting the club passed up more heralded talents such as Troy Tulowitzki, Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen and Jay Bruce.
It’s not that Romero had been a “bust”, mind, you. He just hadn’t really stood out. While Tulowitzki, Maybin, McCutchen and Bruce went on to become prospect darlings and organizational building blocks, Romero entered the ’09 season as the third-best lefty pitching prospect in the Toronto system (behind Brett Cecil and Brad Mills), according to Baseball America.
His peripherals in the minors, while not poor, were bland. Romero punched out seven batters per nine innings, while generously dishing out free passes (3.8 BB/9). Baseball America called him a future “number 3 or 4 starter.” Truth be told, most teams would gladly take such production from a first-rounder. But having selected Romero at the expense of five-tool talents, the Jays were left wanting more.
So far in 2009, Romero has at least slightly eased the pain of passing on the Tulowitzkis and McCutchens of the world. In 14 starts, the 6-1, 200 pounder has compiled a 3.25 ERA. How has Romero come to post the 7th-lowest ERA in the A.L., and what should we expect moving forward? Let’s try to answer those questions.
While Romero has been legitimately impressive, a closer look at his numbers reveals a discord between his ERA and fielding-independent stats. Ricky has racked up 7.59 K/9, while issuing 3.45 BB/9. His Expected Fielding Independent ERA (XFIP, based on a pitcher’s strikeouts, walks and a normalized HR/FB ratio to root out extreme performances on flyballs) is 3.98. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: Romero’s XFIP ranks 9th in the A.L. But, he has benefitted from an 84.8% strand rate, which is a good 13-14% above the league average.
The former Titan totes a four-pitch mix, keeping hitters off balance with a 91 MPH fastball (thrown 51.9% of the time), 83 MPH slider (15.1%), 77 MPH curve (10%) and an 84 MPH changeup (23.1%). Romero’s heater (-0.83 runs/100 pitches) and slider (-1.12) haven’t been instilling fear into the opposition, but his curve has been above average (+0.26) and the changeup has been superb (+3.45).
Romero has long been noted for pulling the string well, which helps to explain his reverse platoon split (.228/.321/.371 vs. RHB, .314/.352/.559 vs. LHB). That trend was also present throughout his minor league career. According to Minor League Splits, Romero had a 4.50 FIP against lefty batters (4.56 BB/9) and a 4.25 mark against righties (3.33 BB/9).
The 24 year-old still isn’t showing the best of control. Romero has placed 46.6% of his pitches within the strike zone (49.3% MLB average), while tossing a first-pitch strike 56.8% of the time (58% MLB avg). On the other hand, Ricky is getting a decent number of outside swings (hitters are chasing 26.9% of his offerings out of the zone, compared to the 25 percent MLB average) and he has a quality contact rate (76.4%, 80.7% MLB avg).
Romero hasn’t been as impressive as his ERA would imply, but he has certainly been a quality starter in his first foray in the majors. He’s missing a decent number of bats with a deep arsenal of pitches, while also keeping the ball on the turf (51.8 GB%). The question moving forward will be: can he limit the walks? Intermittent control plagued Romero throughout his minor league career. For what it’s worth, ZiPS is predicting Romero to return to Earth with a big thud (5.46 ERA, 5.33 K/9 and 4.89 BB/9 during the rest of the 2009 season).
That seems awfully harsh. Granted, Romero toils in the ultra-competitive A.L. East, with a troubling history of missing his spots in the minors. And it’s also true that we’re examining what amounts to a half-season’s worth of data in the majors. But there’s nothing that screams “fluke” in Romero’s big league numbers. He definitely won’t continue posting an ERA in the low three’s, but it seems reasonable to hope for a mark in the low four’s from here on out. Romero is no future ace, but he’s also not a lost cause by any stretch of the imagination.
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