Jeff Blair had Mike Wilner on his Fan 590 radio show this morning to discuss the state of the Blue Jays rotation, the shape of which has apparently largely been decided already by manager John Gibbons. Ol’ Gibbers will slot Drew Hutchison second, between soft-tossers R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, with Brandon Morrow going fifth, starting the home opener while ostensibly being punished (or something) for not being particularly sharp in his first live game action since hitting the DL back at the end of May (save for two innings for Dunedin on a rehab stint in mid-June).
The fourth starter’s spot is still up for grabs, we’re told. Still in the running are ailing mediocrity J.A. Happ, Todd “hoping to not start a sixth straight season in triple-A” Redmond, and non-starter Esmil Rogers. That all makes enough sense, I suppose, but what was somewhat jaw-dropping about the segment to me was what both Blair and Wilner suggested the real plan for the fourth spot in the rotation. That pitcher, apparently, is merely a placeholder until Marcus Stroman is ready. Or, should he continue his supposed upward trend, until Ricky Romero is ready.
Yes, Ricky Romero.
Granted, they were clear that it’s a fairly sizable “if,” but Blair figures that ol’ RR Cool Jay will get every opportunity to succeed, simply because of the money that’s still owed him, and Wilner… well, Wilner was ready to put a positive shine on everything (save Dioner Navarro, apparently), and whichever way this plan ends up going (and it won’t, he figures, include J.A. Happ), he tells us the rotation will be fine.
Not really buying that line, but more importantly… uh… Romero?
In his piece on the rotation for Sportsnet, Wilner explains:
The only one of those five to have really distinguished himself so far this spring is Romero, who has done enough to earn a start on Tuesday afternoon in Lakeland against the Tigers. Romero has looked like his old self more often than not, but it’s a lot to ask for him to be rid of the demons that plagued him the last few seasons by the end of this month. He’s likely ticketed for triple-A Buffalo, but the more he looks like his old self, the more likely the Blue Jays will want him back in the big leagues after a minimal amount of minor league outings.
But… um… has he looked like his old self?
As I noted in last week’s Layin’ Down The Law piece, ESPN’s Keith Law certainly didn’t think so when he saw him, rubbishing the reports out of this city that “something has clicked” for the former All-Star by explaining, “He was horrible when I saw him. Those reports sound like BS to me. Stuff was bad, command was nonexistent.”
Of course, the results, the feeling, and the few underlying spring numbers we can look at say otherwise. Sort of. A 1.29 ERA? WHIP of 1.14? Nearly a strikeout per inning? All those would be pretty nifty things if we weren’t talking about a sample of data that is utterly, utterly meaningless.
But it is meaningless. And that’s too bad, because one could think of few better personal stories that could potentially come from the upcoming season than the return and redemption of Ricky Romero. It could still happen, I suppose, but it’s a hard thing to bet on, despite what on the surface looks like a tiny handful of encouraging numbers.
Those who want badly to believe in what they think they’re seeing have already told me that, while the sample may be small, Romero is at least showing something to be encouraged by (unlike the other dreck in this fight), and he also has a much greater pedigree and ceiling than those he’s competing with (save perhaps for Marcus Stroman). Thing is, that’s all rather misleading…
For one, with the league now being even more aware of his atrocious split against same-sided hitters, it’s hard to imaging Romero putting up the kinds of numbers he did before if he simply went “back” to being the guy he used to be. That guy badly needed a weapon to get lefties out with, and the league knows it.
In his three very good seasons of 2009, 2010, and 2011, left-handers actually managed to produce excellent wOBAs of .378, .343, and .368 against him respectively. In his disastrous 2012 it rose to .390, which maybe isn’t in line with where he’d been in the years prior, but isn’t exactly what you would call a giant spike, either. Exacerbating his problems against same-side hitters by then was the fact that the league had truly begun to notice the difficulty he had getting left-handers out. Rays manager Joe Maddon famously stacked his lineup with lefties against Romero back in 2012, irking the Jays’ then-ace, and overall that season 32.3% of the batters he had faced were same-sided ones. Two years prior just 25.1% of the batters he’d faced were lefties, which would seem to reflect the more orthodox approach managers were then taking when constructing the lineups to face him.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the 2010 season in which he faced lefties just 25.1% of the time was by far Romero’s best, at least according to advanced metrics like FIP, xFIP, fWAR, etc. His All-Star season of 2011 saw the percentage of same-side hitters that he faced jump up to 30.3%, and the damage they inflicted on him rise as well, to the .368 wOBA mentioned above, but that seems — at least in a very crude reading of the numbers — to have been masked by the fact that he was lethal against right-handed hitters, holding them to a .192 average on a suspiciously-low BABIP of .219.
In fact, by year from 2009 to 2012 Romero’s BABIPs against right-handed batters were .299, .272, .219, .325. Of course, BABIP isn’t entirely a factor of luck, but the one still really jumps out as being low, and the next lowest one came in a year where he faced fewer trouble-causing left-handed batters than he has at any point in his career. It almost makes you wonder, even before his command went south, along with the swinging strike rates, to what degree his success was something of a mirage all along.
Oh, and last season, in 115.2 innings at triple-A, 7.0 innings at high-A, and 7.1 innings in the big leagues, left-handed hitters facing Romero put up an OPS of 1.032. One-thousand-thirty-two!!! Mostly in the minor leagues!!!!!
So expecting something just to click and for Romero to snap back into being the All-Star, 3.7 WAR kind of pitcher we saw before the career implosion seems to me to be, unfortunately, pretty fantastical. Should that guy ever exist again, he will undoubtedly see more left-handed batters than ever before, and without some kind of new weapon to get them out with, his overall numbers almost certainly won’t ever be the same.
For two, we can actually look for ourselves a little bit more deeply into where Romero has been at so far this spring than what we’d merely see in his stat line — though, even just the line is enough to tell us that command remains an issue, as he’s walked five batters in seven innings of work. You’d also have to think that he’s been getting lucky, having held opponents in this ridiculously tiny and meaningless sample to a BABIP of just .176. And speaking of those opponents, we’d do well to remember that they’ve mostly been minor leaguers.
In fact, on Romero’s Baseball Reference page we can see in numeric form that he’s faced lesser competition, because the site has come up with a number to reflect “opponent quality” during spring training, based on the levels a player’s opponents played at during the previous season. If the number is a 10, the opponents faced have all been major leaguers, if it’s 8, they’re from triple-A, seven is from double-A, five is high-A, and so on down the line.
Romero’s OppQual number at this stage is 8.2, putting him behind fellow rotation candidates R.A. Dickey (9.4), Mark Buehrle (9.4), Brandon Morrow (9.4 [Note: the game against the Canadian juniors mustn't have counted]), Marcus Stroman (9.4), J.A. Happ (9.4), Dustin McGowan (9.4), Todd Redmond (8.8), Drew Hutchison (8.6), and Chad Jenkins (8.4).
At 8.2, Romero is even with the opponent quality seen by Sean Nolin, and ahead of only Esmil Rogers (7.9), as far as pitchers who had a shot of making the rotation go.
Hey! But those results, right??? Can’t argue with results! Except… we can actually take a look at how Romero’s results came about, exactly.
There is no video of Ricky’s outing over the weekend against Tampa, however those of us with MLB.tv can go back and take a look at the three innings he had pitched prior — one against Baltimore on March 1st, and two against those same Rays back on March 7th.
This afternoon, that’s exactly what I did, and unfortunately for Jays fans, I’d tend to agree more with Keith Law’s assessment than whatever vague feelings of possibility have been creeping up on a desperate fan base.
Below I’ve provided brief notes on each and every pitch of these three innings, though I’m sure I’ve mislabeled some things, and some of my shorthand might be rather unhelpful, as I’ll be the first to admit this isn’t exactly my greatest area of expertise. Still, there are some pretty clear reminders that all wasn’t cinnamon and gravy, even considering that we’re not exactly looking for perfection here.
03/01 vs. Baltimore – 5th Inning
LHB – David Lough
-Misses way to glove side, goes to the backstop.
-Batter shows bunt, misses to same spot (less badly).
-Same story, closer to the plate, lower.
-Four pitch walk, misses glove side again.
RHB – Nelson Cruz
-Misses low (changeup?)
-Breaking ball in for strike.
-Looping curve misses to arm side.
-Curve misses hight and outside, Thole jumps. Crossed signals.
-Fastball misses outside, walk.
LHB – Chris Davis
-Infield fly on first pitch FB.
RHB – Adam Jones
-Curve misses high and outside.
-Fastball low gets Jones to chase.
-Misses low and in– glove side.
-Changeup belt high outside, Jones just misess it, fly out.
LHB – Nick Markakis
-First pitch fly out.
03/07 vs. Tampa Bay – 7th Inning
LHB – Jeremy Moore
-Bounced well in front of the mound.
-Low and away gets a swing, good pitch.
-OK pitch low and inside, fouled off.
-Low and away, didn’t bite.
-Swinging strike on fastball up and away.
LHB – Cameron Seitzer
-First pitch pulled to 1B, out.
RHB – Sean Rodriguez
-Miss low and inside (glove side).
-Swing on a curve outside and low.
-Missed high with fastball.
-Walk, missing high and inside with fastball.
LHB – Cole Figueroa
-Nice pitch, low and away, strike. Good location.
-Goes inside, grounded to short, out.
RHB – Justin Christian
-First pitch ground out, location good.
LHB – Vince Belhome
-Bounces first pitch to glove side.
-FB middle in for strike.
-Nice curveball drops in for strike.
-Misses target low and away by a lot.
-Slider low and away gets a swing. (Does a big leaguer bite?)
RHB – Mikie Mahtook
-First pitch misses big to arm side.
-Single slashed to RF, fastball up and in, location good.
RHB – Curt Casali
-Fastball up and in, grounder to 3B, reached on error.
RHB – Richie Shaeffer
-Swinging strike low and in.
-Fastball with arm side run for strike.
-K on low and outside fastball.
There are badly missed spots, bounced balls, crossed signals, swings at pitches legit big leaguers may not have bitten on. As Law would define it, Romero struggled with control (the ability to throw strikes), and he struggled with command (the ability to put specific pitches where he wanted to). He threw one really nice looking curve, but the location on the others was spotty, at best, throughout. Against Baltimore he threw one pitch that went to the backstop, two more that would have if not for Josh Thole, and put a changeup on a belt-high tee that Adam Jones just missed. Against Tampa he bounced four of 26 pitches in the dirt, nearly did so on another one, and got results basically because he managed to get some bad hitters to chase.
I don’t think the story from the game I couldn’t see in the MLB.tv archive, from this weekend against Tampa, tells us a whole lot different: Romero’s first inning of work was nice, including a strikeout of Ben Zobrist. In his second inning he walked Logan Forsythe, then got a gift from Jose Bautista, who threw him out at third when the next batter singled. Hak-Ju Lee cashed a run with a single before a groundout ended the threat. The next inning started with a walk, but Romero was then bailed out by a double play, and in his last inning of work he made quick business of the murderer’s row that is Kiermeier, Guyer, and Belnome.
I don’t think it’s damning stuff, necessarily — to be fair, he induced some pretty weak contact in the outings I re-watched, those strikeouts do count for something, and it’s not up to him to decide which batters he faces — and I’m sure there would be black marks on every pitcher’s chart if we took inventory of a handful of spring innings this way, but I guess the point of doing so here is to ask ourselves the question, does this really look a whole lot different from the Romero we saw last year and the year before? The Romero who also had encouraging moments amid the second straight disaster? The Romero who, in the damn minor leagues in 2013, put up ERAs of 4.15, 4.44, and 5.50 in June, July, and August?
It simply doesn’t.
So why the hell are we talking about him? Why the hell are the Blue Jays talking about him?
If a Romero comeback is going to be a story — and, again, it would be a great one, and despite my pragmatism on the issue I’m rooting for it — why force it? Why get talking to the media about having any kind of hope here? Why continue this off-season’s insufferable trend of pissing in our mouths and telling us it’s raining? Or, if you’re actually desperate enough to be serious about getting help from Romero before you’ve seen more than seven fucking innings mostly against shitbags, just… WHY???
Here’s a handy tip, Jays: if you don’t want fans to dumbly go off the deep end about stuff like Brandon Morrow being oddly moved to the fifth spot in the rotation, maybe don’t encourage the same sort of derangement when it comes to a tiny sample of Ricky Romero’s “positive” first seven innings against minor leaguers of the year. Hmm?