Ricky Romero in 2012: Outlier or Norm
Last season, Ricky Romero was a shell of his 2011 self. After his breakout 2011 season it seemed that despite his equivocal numbers in the minors, Romero, the number six overall pick in the 2005 draft (ahead of Troy Tulowitzki who propelled the Rockies to the 2007 World Series while Romero stagnated in Double-A with shoulder issues), had finally proven his worth.
Any time a starter can throw over 220 innings and record a sub-3.00 ERA in the American League East, he is worth keeping around. And that is exactly what the Jays front office did in the dog days of his 2011 breakout season: locked him in. In the middle of an August month in which Romero was 5-0 with a torrid 2.05 ERA and .91 WHIP, the Jays signed him to a five-year, $30-million deal with a lucrative club option. Who wouldn’t? It appeared that Romero would be the Jays’ ace for the next half-decade.
The first installment in Romero’s multi-year deal – 2012 – was, well, utterly terrible. I don’t want to belabor what has already received considerable analysis in various post-mortem and state-of-the-franchise pieces, so I will just give you the raw, hard numbers. Take a look at Romero’s 2012 season. For perspective, I included his 2011 numbers, too.
The Star said it best in in its early October season recap: “[Romero’s] ace status isn’t gone; [but] it is in question.” While Brandon Morrow will enter spring training as the Jays’ presumptive ace, 2011 did not erase what Romero was able to achieve in 2012. One thing’s for sure, though. In the minds of Jays fans, it certainly did cast doubt on Romero’s ability to replicate that performance in 2013 and beyond.
What should we make of Romero’s 2011 performance? Was it an anomalous showing from a top prospect that didn’t exactly pan out? A flash in the pan, if you will? Only posterity will know for sure, but Jays fans hope that it’s the 2012 version of Romero which will be remembered as the outlier.
This entry, which is certainly a digression from the central focus of this blog (although, after watching Romero last season, it’s not farfetched to imagine him with Buffalo in 2013 if he continues where he left off), will explore two questions.
First, I will look for the trends and habits that buried Romero in 2012. One diagnosis I will not accept for Romero’s implosion is the temperamental excuse: i.e. “Romero just needs to straighten his head out.” While baseball is a psychological sport and some soul-searching might benefit Romero, I am looking for data, not platitudes. Second, I will compare Romero’s pitch data from the last two seasons to see if there was a substantial loss in velocity or movement in 2012.
Between these two question, I will attempt to parse some sort of explanation for Romero’s lackluster performance last season.
I know baseball is not a sport which lends itself to simple but-for causation – in fact, my conclusion is decidedly inconclusive – but I will try to identify the main culprits. “It’s the process, not the end result,” I was told when a track season replete with 100-mile training weeks ended in a bust. I think some sort of rationale for Romero’s disappointment might provide some closure for the trainwreck that was 2012.
Looking at Romero’s 2012 numbers, the most glaring statistic is his walk rate. While Romero walked 3.2/9 in 2012, that figure rose to 5.2/9 last season. The principle of regression to the mean does not account for this dramatic increase in free passes. In 2010 Romero walked 3.5 per 9 innings; in 2009 4.0/9 innings.
To what do you attribute this dramatic uptick in walk percentage? This might sound counterintuitive, but it’s not reducible to Romero’s inability to find the strike zone. Romero actually threw pitches in the strike zone at a higher rate in 2012 (42.7%) than he did in 2011 (42.4%). What really troubled Romero, however, was his ability to get ahead in the count and throw strikes at the right time. This is evidenced by Romero’s career low first-strike rate. While Romero had first-strike rates of 58.1% and 57.9% in 2010 and 2011, respectively, in 2012 Romero sported a first-strike rate of 53.3%. The league average is 59.9%. Woof.
When the count sits in the hitter’s favor, Romero is forced to throw hittable pitches within the zone – lest increase an already unacceptable walk-rate. Romero’s career-high zone-contact percentage of 90.9% in 2012 – almost three percent greater than the league average – is consistent with this.
In 2011, when behind in the count, Romero threw his fourseamer only 64% of the time against lefties and 53% against righties. This relatively sparing use of his fastball allowed him to mix up his pitches, keeping batters off balance. In 2012, however, instead of mixing in his secondary pitches, when the batter was ahead Romero relied on his fourseamer a whopping 81% of the time against lefties and 68% against righties.
Let’s face it: Romero’s pitch selection was predictable when behind in the count, and he was behind in the count often. Couple that predictability with a slight downtick in the velocity of Romero’s fourseamer (92.72mph in 2011 v. 91.92mph 2012) and – as we’ll explore later, decreased life – and the more disciplined, pitch-selective batters were seeing volleyballs from Romero.
Hence, the second-most dramatic difference in Romero’s statistics between 2011 and 2012: Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). BABIP measures how many of a batter’s balls in play go for hits, or how many balls in play against a pitcher go for hits, excluding homeruns. Romero’s 2011 BABIP (.242) was an impressive .49 lower than the league average (.291). In 2012, however, Romero’s .311 BABIP Romero was .18 over the league average. Generally speaking, BABIP is not a highly-regarded metric. It is thought to be a function of defense and luck, rather than replicable skill. On a long enough timeline, it is asserted that every pitcher’s BABIP should be more or less equal.
But such a marked variance between Romero’s 2011 and 2012 BABIPs, coupled with the dramatic increase in Romero’s line-drive percentage (14.2% in 2011 to 20.1% in 2012), is telling. It demonstrates that when hitters were putting the ball in play off Romero, they were doing so emphatically. By pitching into hitter-advantageous counts, Romero found himself in batters’ clutches. Consistent with our earlier assessment that Romero was over-utilizing his fourseamer in hitter’s counts, Romero’s BABIP for his fastball is most egregious. While in 2011 Romero’s fastball BABIP was .290, in 2012 it stood at .368. With one ball on the count, that figure rose to an incredible .384.
Romero’s difficulty in getting ahead in the count fundamentally altered his pitch usage in 2012. Rather than drawing from his four-pitch arsenal, Romero seemed to aim his most reliable pitch into the zone. This defensive-minded “must-throw-strikes” approach might explain why Romero rationed his sinker so much last season.
In 2011 Romero threw his sinker 22% of the time, often as a put-away pitch toward the back-end of the at bat. The sinker worked well for Romero in that breakthrough season. Netting a groundball in 67% of balls in play, Romero accrued a .185 BABIP when throwing the hard, biting 92mph pitch. In 2012, however, the pitch was used infrequently, accounting for just 11% of pitches thrown – his eminently hittable fourseamer compensating for the difference (up from 48% of pitches in 2011 to 57% in 2012). Romero’s groundball rate remained relatively stable in 2012 despite the decrease in sinkers (54.7% in 2011 to 53.5% in 2012), but those groundballs obviously went for hits more often. While, among the rest of Romero’s career, his high sinker usage in 2012 is certainly an outlier, give his demonstrated success with the pitch late in the count, perhaps it would behoove him to throw it more often 2013.
I am not about to reduce Romero’s 2012 struggles entirely to his inability to throw first-pitch strikes, but I think it was a culprit. The first pitch establishes the tenor of the at bat. In a lot of ways, it dictates whether the pitcher is the hunter or hunted. Romero has quality stuff, but he doesn’t boast an overpowering, dominant pitch that can he can rely on to miss bats down in the count. Instead, as he did well in 2011, it is imperative that Romero keep hitters off-balance and in a defensive mindset so that harmless contact can be induced. This is not achieved by consistently falling behind in counts. It is common knowledge that pitchers enjoy better results when they get ahead in the count. Romero is no exception.
To what do you attribute Romero’s early-count control issues? Is it a mechanical or psychological problem? It does not seem to be the former. A recent article at Baseball Prospectus compared Romero’s 2011 and 2012 deliveries and concluded that, in a lot of ways, last season’s mechanics were actually superior to the “exaggerated drop-and-dive” and “severe spine tilt” that characterized his delivery during his breakthrough 2011 campaign. The article concluded that because Romero’s 2012 delivery provided him with a stronger foundation for pitch repetition, it should have left him with better control and consistency. Not the case. Theory and practice do not always jibe.
So it must be psychological then, right? This would be my cue to embark on a pseudo-psychological diatribe about Romero’s lack of focus and his need to temper a volatile temperament, but I won’t. Maybe, after his exemplary 2011 showing and the addition of a second wild-card berth, the ace expectations were too much for Romero to shoulder in 2012. Perhaps Romero was simply in a funk. I have neither the data nor desire to psychoanalyze the man. Suffice it to say that if Romero wants to remain in the starting rotation in 2013, let alone lead it, he will need to throw more first pitch strikes.
But there’s more to the story. A tendency to fall into hitter-advantageous counts could lead to a parade of horribles for a pitcher, but does it explain career low swing and miss (8.3%) and K/9 (6.2/9) rates? In part, yes, it could. With regard to the strikeout rate, obviously it takes more work to earn the K from a count that stands at 1-0 than an 0-1 count. However, there does not seem to be an apparent causal link between low first-strike and swing-and-miss rates. The metric yearns for some other explanation: depreciation in Romero’s stuff.
Did Romero simply throw more effective pitches in 2011? Let’s take a gander
As the charts show, in terms of velocity, the differences are negligible. We see slight decreases in Romero’s fourseamer (-.80mph), and sinker (-.91mph), and a more substantial decrease in his changeup (-2.15mph). His curveball remained virtually the same speed (77.79mph to 77.67mph). So it does not appear that Romero suffered from an arm strength issue in 2012 of the sort that the Yankees’ Phil Hughes or Reds’ Arlodis Chapman endured in early 2011.
Regarding movement, while horizontal movement remained steady, Romero’s fourseamer lost about an inch in vertical movement last season. This might seem like a de minimis loss of “life” on a pitch over a distance of 52-55 feet, but it’s not. An inch of late movement could mean the difference between the batter hitting the pitch directly on the screws, or fouling it to the backstop. This flatness on Romero’s 2012 fastball could help to explain why hitters teed off on the pitch with such regularity (See .368 BABIP).
But, for the most part, there was not an egregious loss of vertical or horizontal movement in Romero’s pitches in 2012. The graphics below present a nice visual on the similarity in movement of Romero’s pitches in 2011 and 2012, replete with RHH and LHH splits.
If Romero’s 2012 ills had to reside in his stuff, the main suspect would have to be his changeup. Romero’s swing-and-miss and whiff/swing rates decreased markedly for his changeup in 2012. While in 2011 Romero possessed a whiff rate of 23.61% and a whiff/swing rate of 44.74%, in 2012 he recorded rates of 16.57% and 35.32%, respectively.
A good changeup is largely a function of its release point and the pitch’s velocity relative to the pitcher’s fastball. It is a pitch of deception. The longer it looks like a fastball to the hitter, the better. The substantial velocity decrease in the changeup (-2.15mph) should not be viewed in isolation as a cause for the pitch’s loss of effectiveness. It should instead be viewed in relation to Romero’s fastball, which lost about one mile per hour in velocity in 2012.
Typical FB-CU discrepancies in the MLB ranges from 4mph to 15mph, with a mean of around 8mph. Romero’s discrepancy, which was 7.02mph in 2011, actually increased in 2012 to 8.37mph. Thus the discrepancies for both years hovered right around the league average, making it impossible to impute hitters’ success off Romero’s changeup on this basis.
The release point of the pitch, however, is another story. Romero’s changeup was so effective in 2011 due in part to its release point, which virtually mirrored that of his fastball. The tight cluster of delivery points in the graphic below shows that in 2011 batters could not easily discern pitches based on their point of release from Romero’s hand. Instead they were required to gauge the spin and trajectory of the ball to determine the type of pitch. A consequence to this uniformity of release point meant that batters had less time to react to the pitch and decide whether to swing.
In 2012, however, the uniformity in Romero’s release point became disparate. As shown by the graphic below, Romero routinely delivered his different pitches from discrete release points. This allowed hitters to detect the pitch type upon release from Romero’s hand, giving them increased time to weigh the merits and demerits of swinging.
So, I have identified three main issues that hamstrung Romero in 2012. From these issues flow a variety of other problems that caused 2012 to be such a disappointment for the young lefty. First, he needs to throw more first-pitch strikes which, in turn, should remediate what was a career-worst BB/9 rate in 2012 and result in a lower BABIP. By getting ahead in the count, Romero would also be more apt to use his secondary pitches late in the count – namely his hard sinker – and avoid simply laying fastballs in the zone. Second, while his delivery mechanics appear sound, it is crucial that Romero work with pitching coach Bruce Walton to adjust the release point on his secondary pitches. The greater the uniformity and consistency in his release, the greater his deception, and ultimately, success. Third, Romero’s fastball lost some life in 2012 and could use some “giddy-up” to miss more bats. Hopefully he will toe the mound rejuvenated and ready to do work next spring. The Jays will need him to look like his 2011 iteration if they want to avoid a 20 year postseason drought.
Follow me on Twitter @aaabisonsblog
I am currently covering the Blue Jays’ delegates in the Arizona Fall League, as well as representatives in the Dominican and Mexican leagues.