Ricky Romero used to be good. Then he was bad. After unfair comparisons to the quickly developing players in his draft class, Romero emerged in 2009 as a promising young southpaw with one of the better off-speed pitches in baseball. In 2010, he made good on this promise, producing a good enough season to give fans a semblance of hope in a year that would otherwise feel dreadful for its sudden absence of previous staff ace Roy Halladay.
In 2011, it all clicked. Romero was trending in the right direction in terms of strikeouts, walks and ground balls. Buoyed by a low BABIP and high strand rate – numbers typically attributed to events outside of a pitcher’s control – the Blue Jays ace finished the season with a career high in wins and an ERA below three.
Given the somewhat disappointing results of the rest of the young and inexperienced staff, Romero’s performance stood out as something that was actually encouraging to fans, and presumably to management, who prior to his breakout year, had locked up the left-handed pitcher’s services for the next five seasons at the seemingly low cost of a guaranteed $30.1 million.
Then came 2012.
Romero, whose best asset had always been his change up, isn’t a typical left-handed pitcher. His arsenal of pitches, including his beloved off-speed offering, all move away from left-handed batters and in on right-handed batters.
If we were to look at Romero’s pitches from above, they’d look like this against left-handed batters:
This led to what’s commonly referred to as reverse splits through the early going of his career. Where typically a left-handed pitcher would have better numbers against a left-handed batter, Romero was actually below average against batters of the same handedness. His best tool against right-handed batters, that glorious change up, was rather pedestrian to a left-handed batter who watched it come from the inside and end up outside on him.
However, he was so effective against right-handed batters, who represent the side from which the majority of Major League hitters swing a bat, that this was overlooked by most people.
In fact, if you didn’t look at Romero’s splits, you’d likely assume that Romero was similar to most left-handed pitchers. Joe Maddon, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, isn’t most people. He looked at Romero’s splits, and he didn’t assume anything.
Against the Rays, Romero would face a lineup full of left-handed batters, who would inevitably perform well against the pitcher. This is referred to as the Danks Theory, which seems obvious in its suggestion of going against the grain by using batters of the same handedness as a pitcher when that pitcher’s best weapon is most effective against opposite handed batters. However, baseball is a strange place where innovation – especially in terms of lineup construction and bullpen management – is often met with suspicion.
Romero wasn’t too enthused with the idea of being such a solvable commodity. As Tommy Rancel reminds us at The Process Report, the pitcher, when asked about Tampa Bay’s strategizing, challenged Maddon to start nine left-handed batters against him.
Perhaps in a bit of gamesmanship, Maddon reversed course at the end of last season and started eight right-handed batters in a game versus Romero. He allowed seven runs in one inning of work.
Soon, the rest of the league figured out Romero’s achilles, and it was not uncommon to see multiple left-handed hitters in lineups versus Romero. However, this doesn’t fully explain what went wrong with the pitcher in 2012, as Romero went from a pitcher who exuded command of the strike zone to one who had little control whatsoever with any pitch in his arsenal.
Earlier, I wrote glowingly of Romero’s off-speed pitch, but it’s only as effective as its use, and like most change ups, it’s best used when a pitcher is ahead in the count. If a pitcher can’t get ahead in the count with a first pitch strike, and what ever comes after, it’s largely neutralized. The results of the 2012 season for Romero were disastrous.
It was such a discouraging season that the Blue Jays sent Romero to Class-A Dunedin to start the 2013 season in an environment wherein he could rework his repertoire. Unfortunately, Josh Johnson’s inflamed triceps muscle and a subsequent trip to the Disabled List meant that Romero would be called back up to the Majors ahead of schedule.
His first start lasted just four innings. After going once through the batting order, he allowed three runs on three hits and three walks, hitting batter and throwing a wild pitch the second time around. On Wednesday night, he made his second start of the 2013 season against Maddon and the Rays. It didn’t go very well.
The Tampa Bay manager started four left-handed batters against Romero, leaving right-handed batters Ryan Roberts and Sean Rodriguez on the bench in favor of Sam Fuld, Kelly Johnson, James Loney and Luke Scott. The three who faced Romero, before he was mercifully pulled from the game, went three-for-three, all on line drive singles, pulled into right field.
Romero only registered a single out. Here is the order of what happened to him:
- Single (one run scored);
- Single (one run scored);
- Fly out;
- Single (one run scored);
Looking solely at the outcomes, one might wonder if Romero’s departure from the game was premature. However, those thoughts are quickly dismissed by anyone watching the shattered pitcher perform in a manner reminiscent of a Richie Tenenbaum breakdown. It would’ve hardly have been surprising to see Romero remove his cleats and one sock if he was left in any longer.
Romero threw 29 pitches. Only 16 were strikes.
In the aftermath of this disaster, fans and national columnists alike have questioned the Blue Jays front office for promoting Romero when he clearly wasn’t ready to face big league batters. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Toronto has been negligent in their treatment of the once-prized pitcher.
There are few things that rub me the wrong way about this attitude. First of all, the Minor Leagues are not some magical kingdom wherein the ghost of Mel Queen visits you at night and leads you on an adventure that allows you to discover the non-existant key to pitching. Dunedin is not the Legend of Zelda, and Ricky Romero isn’t Link.
Secondly, Romero was simply unable to throw strikes. I’m not sure what type of coaching program is going to change this, but again, I think it’s naive to believe such a problem is dependent on taking more time at the Minor League level. I despise the idea of relying on an appeal to authority for an argument, but when the alternative viewpoint is held by a fan who wrote the team off two weeks into the season and believed Munenori Kawasaki to be a diamond in the rough that the rest of baseball was foolish to look past, I’ll trust the perspective of a front office who chose to bring up Romero and is committed to paying the pitcher a minimum of $23 million over the next three years.
Will Romero ever recover the ability that he exhibited before his untimely talent collapse? I don’t know, but I am aware that the answer isn’t as easy as a mere Minor League assignment. This isn’t a video game, where suddenly a pitcher goes from unprepared to ready. It’s a bit more nuanced than that.
The team isn’t where most fans imagined it would be at this point, and sadly, neither is Ricky Romero. However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t try and give both the team and the pitcher every opportunity imaginable to succeed. Sometimes, it will work out. Sometimes, as we saw on Wednesday night, it just won’t work out at all.
Early on Thursday morning, the Blue Jays announced that Ricky Romero has been optioned to Triple-A Buffalo. Edgar Gonzalez was also designated for assignment to create room for Ramon Ortiz and Mickey Storey who were both called up from the Bisons.