Ricky Romero emerged as the ace of the Toronto Blue Jays’ staff in 2011, and if one were to look at the numbers that are more common to television broadcasts than serious analysis, there would be little doubt as to why. A career high 15 wins coupled with an ERA below three made Romero the pick of an otherwise inexperienced and/or inconsistent starting rotation.
Even for the types who like to look deeper into the numbers, there were encouraging signs for the development of the former first round draft pick. Romero was trending the right way in terms of a decreasing walk rate in each of his first three seasons in the big leauges while his strike out rate settled at an above average number and his ground ball rate was consistently over 55%. However, there were signs that the success he attained in 2011 benefited from randomness outside of the left-hander’s control.
For instance, his .242 BABIP was almost 50 points below the league average, suggesting that balls in play were getting scooped up for him that weren’t necessarily being eaten by fielders for other pitchers. A 79.2% strand rate compared to the 72.5% league average meant that he found some luck in the timing of when batters collected hits off of him. And finally, no starter in baseball had a lower line drive rate at 14.2%, which ties into his incredibly low BABIP, and because line drive rates, unlike their ground ball and fly ball cousins, appear to be random in correlation studies when it comes to pitchers, we can say that Romero would’ve found a good portion of luck with such a low number.
As we know, line drives are killers. A couple of weeks ago, Eno Sarris showed us the difference in looking at the slash line for batted balls this season. The ground ball slash line looked like this: .234/.234/.254, while for fly balls it was .231/.226/.625, and on line drives we saw the biggest difference: .727/.723/.981. So, there’s evidence to support the idea that Romero’s TV numbers last year were maybe a little bit misleading as to his true talent. Because of this, we might have expected a little bit of regression to occur in 2012.
However, nothing could prepare fans, analysts or the Blue Jays for the season Romero has had. Put plainly and simply, he’s been terrible. In comparison to the rest of the league, he has the fourth worst ERA, the third worst FIP and the fifth worst xFIP among all starters. His 15.3% strike out rate is 4.3% below average. His 12.3% walk rate is 4.2% above average. There isn’t a single thing that he’s doing impressively this season.
And making it all the worse is that there’s no obvious reason for his terrible play. There’s nothing that’s easily identified as the cause for his drop off.
In terms of numbers, his BABIP is, as expected, higher than last season, but it still hovers around the league average. His strand rate is much lower than the previous year, but again, it isn’t far enough below the league average to explain what’s happening as merely bad luck. We do see a 5% increase in his line drive rate (which might help explain the increase in BABIP), but it’s still below the number of line drives he allowed in his rookie season when he was considerably better overall.
Even when we look beyond the numbers, we see little difference in the stuff that Romero is using. His pitches, in terms of frequency, velocity and movement are all very similar to last year, as we see from the following charts courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
This is horizontal movement vs. velocity against right handed batters, first in 2011 and then, in 2012:
There’s not a lot of difference in there, except a few sliders that are now cutters, that are unsurprisingly coming in at a higher velocity and similar movement.
This is horizontal movement vs. velocity against left handed batters, first in 2011 and then, in 2012:
Again, there’s not a lot of difference here. We see a more consistent change up this season, and a similar difference between slider and cutter as we saw against right handed batters.
The same holds true for Romero’s vertical movement, year to year, as we see in these charts measuring horizontal by vertical movement, first in 2011 and then, in 2012:
Once again, there’s not enough of a significant difference here to suggest that Romero’s stuff is the culprit for his poor performance.
So, then what?
Let’s look at the pitcher’s splits. Romero has always been a reverse split pitcher thanks to his excellent change up ruining right handed hitting, but being rather ineffective against lefties. Perhaps managers are more prone to use left handed batters against him this season, and that’s making his overall numbers look bad. Or, perhaps not. Romero has faced 68.8% right handed batters and 31.2% left handed batters this season, compared to 69.7% RHB and 30.3% LHB last year.
However, this season, lefties have an outrageous .907 OPS against him, a sizeable increase over last year’s .834 OPS, but nowhere near as bad as righty hitters who have a .767 OPS against him this season compared to a .589 OPS last year. Even though hitters from both sides of the plate are getting to him, the dramatic increase in production from right handed batters is the source of most of his overall trouble. However, when we go back to looking at his stuff and the overall frequency of his different pitches, we see no noticeable difference in what’s being offered to right handed batters this season than what was offered to them last year.
This leaves us with a couple of possibilities: Romero isn’t using the same pitch chains this season as in the past or else right handed batters are facing Romero differently.
I don’t have the capabilities to look at specific pitch chains, but we can compare what pitches Romero used in different counts vs. right handed batters in 2011 to 2012. The first thing that stands out is that Romero isn’t throwing his sinker as much on the first pitch of an at bat against right handed hitters, but what this leads us to see is something a bit more important. Generally speaking, batters aren’t swinging at what Romero offers on the first pitch, especially if it’s a fastball.
Both four seamers and sinkers are only swung at 17% and 26% of the time respectively. This compares to 2011, when the two pitches were swung at 27% and 30% of the time. This is also reflected in Romero’s overall first pitch strike percentage which has fallen significantly from 58% in 2011 to 51% in 2012. In other words, right handed batters are getting ahead in the count early by more frequently taking his first pitch. We see this most notably on balls out of the zone that come in inside on the batters.
Once behind in the count, Romero seems even less likely to throw a sinker, instead opting to break out his change up. However, the change up is only being swung on and missed 9% of the 55 times it’s been used in a 1-0 count, compared to 2011 when it caused whiffs 23% of the 57 times it was used. All this, despite being swung at a similar number of times in both seasons.
This might suggest that after going up 1-0, batters are sitting on the change up, but that’s not quite the case. It instead has more to do with the location of the pitch. In 2011, Romero located his change up away from right handed batters, but in 2012, he’s more prone to leaving it in the center of the plate.
1-0 change up location in 2011:
1-0 change up location in 2012:
This certainly contributes to the increase we find in opponent OPS from .906 in 2011 to 1.011 in 2012, but I have to think that the real culprit here is that right handed batters are swinging more frequently and making more contact on the 1-0 four seamers that Romero is setting up. Not helping mattters is that these pitches have been coming in at a mile per hour slower and are more likely to be thrown in the zone than last year. However, even then we see that more than 70% of the balls that get put into play on his four seamer at this count are judged to be ground balls. So, it’s not entirely as awful as it might first appear.
Where Romero really loses batters this season has been when the count is even at 1-1. In this situation last year, batters had a measly .634 OPS. This year, it’s almost doubled to a 1.231 OPS. Throwing all of his pitches at almost the exact same frequency in this situation year to year, we notice that his change up moves a little bit less and comes in on average one mile per hour slower this year than last. Perhaps it’s because of this that batters are making better contact on the pitch as a whole, and driving it more consistently in this count.
Right handed batters are also making more and better contact on his four seam fastball, which is being located over the plate, instead of inside, far more than it was with the same count last season.
1-1 four seamers in 2011:
1-1 four seamers in 2012:
Again, we come across a recurring problem with Romero, and that’s location. Despite appearing to be using the same or at least similar stuff in terms of everything we looked at before, he’s not locating his pitches in the same manner or in the same location as when he found success. I think part of this is due to batters forcing his hand this season a little more than in previous years and making him throw strikes, but the biggest problem seems to simply be a sudden reluctance on his part to come inside on batters with the fastball and go outside with the change up.
We see a similar inability to properly locate and more repercussions in the form of hard hit balls on 3-1 counts, for which Romero held opposing batters to a .929 OPS in 2011, but has struggled by allowing a 1.821 OPS in 2012.
A sudden inability to locate, and opposing batters seemingly aware of what’s coming at them makes me wonder about his overall mechanics and release point. Here, we see that Romero has thrown a number of fastballs and curve balls from a different place than he has in the past.
I’ve tried to find these instances on video without much success, so it’s hard to pass judgment without seeing specifics on a few pitches that could have been in any situation and been the result of him trying something new to counteract his recent struggles, rather than the cause of his struggles.
In watching video though, I did notice something that could be explained away as merely the television angle, but Romero seems to step down further with his lead leg toward first base and in front of his body now than he did last year.
Here’s an example of him releasing the ball in 2011:
And here he is from a similar camera angle in 2012:
We can see it exaggerated from a more pronounced angle change, again from 2012:
It’s rather minute, but at the very least it’s something to look for in his future starts, and something that, as small as it may be, is different from the previous year. And we do know about pitchers who are said to leave balls up in the zone because of a stiff stride leg. That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening here, but it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine location being affected by a change in his pitching stride.
What we have in summary seems to make all of this rather pedantic, but like bad real estate, Romero’s problems seem to be rooted in bad location. What’s interesting to me is that batters in 2012 seem to be aware of this, or at the very least look like they’re aware of it in their approach to Romero. This is most found in their increasing willingness to take that first pitch and get ahead in the count. Romero is actually benefiting from more called strikes than last year, which suggests to me that the lower number of swings on that first pitch isn’t just a matter of the Blue Jays southpaw not hitting his spots.
It seems to me to be an overall strategy on the part of the hitter. By not swinging at that first pitch, batters take a 50/50 gamble on getting ahead in the count, and on plate appearances that end while they’re ahead opposing hitters have a .947 OPS, compared to a .535 OPS this season on plate appearances that end with Romero ahead.
We see this approach in action with the sheer number of showdowns ending with the batter ahead in the count, 42% this year compared to 36% last year. While we struggle to identify mechanical issues that might cause bad location, batters appear ready and willing to accept this new brand of Romero that’s been going out there. While their new insight into Romero is forcing him to throw pitches he’d rather not, or if the bad location after the first pitch is making more patient hitters out of his opposition, it’s difficult to tell.
What we can certainly say is that despite similar velocity, movement and frequency of pitches in his repertoire, Ricky Romero isn’t the same pitcher that he was last year, most notably in his ability to hit his spots. Is that something that can be easily corrected? I don’t know, but running him out there with the same game plan doesn’t seem to be working. Perhaps it’s time to call this season for what it is, and stop feigning concerns over current standings and start focusing attention on doing whatever it takes to cure what ails Romero.