Ricky Romero is not a Major League-caliber pitcher right now. He’s been terrible almost the entire season, and last night’s debacle against the Detroit Tigers was one of the worst.
In case you didn’t watch the game, here is Romero’s ridiculously bad line:
5 1/3 innings pitcher (16 outs recorded)
7 hits allowed
8 walks allowed
5 earned runs allowed
0 home runs allowed, amazingly
On June 27, 2012, fangraphs.com writer Eno Sarris wrote a piece entitled What Happened to Ricky Romero. That was nearly 2 months ago. On that day, he went 3 innings and allowed 7 hits, walked 6, and gave up 8 earned runs while striking out 1 batter. Since then, he has started 10 games, pitched 56 and 2/3 innings, given up 67 hits and 35 walks, as well as 5 home runs, while striking out only 34 batters. That has resulted in an ERA of 6.83 (with 1.80 WHIP) and 0 wins for the him, although the team has managed to go a whopping 1-9 in those games, with that 1 win coming in a game in Oakland where Romero was fortunate to only give up 1 run in 7 innings despite walking 4 batters opposite 5 strikeouts (you want your strikeout-to-walk ratio to be at least 2:1).
That last paragraph was tough to write—I didn’t realize he had been THAT bad, probably because most pitchers who are that bad don’t get to start 11 games in a row without missing a turn or winding up on the disabled list.
Coming into this season, Romero was expected to be the Jays’ ace. While advanced statistics haven’t shown him to be an ace in the past, and his 2.92 ERA in 2011 was thanks to some pretty good luck, they did indicate that he was a solid top-half-of-the-rotation pitcher (a #2 starter on an average staff and a #3 starter in a strong rotation). What they didn’t point toward was that in 2012 he would have a 5.63 ERA and 1.57 WHIP as of August 22.
So what do the Jays do with their supposed ace? Place him on waivers, and hope that someone either claims him and his remaining $23.85million guaranteed contract, a la Alex Rios? Or let him clear waivers (or be claimed and then rescind) and then trade him to a desperate team in a pitcher-friendly park looking to make a playoff push (like the Pittsburgh Pirates)? Or send him to the minors where he can try to hone his stuff, regain his confidence, and iron-out whatever mechanical/mental flaw has caused him to lose the ability to throw strikes? Or keep throwing him out there every 5 days and pray that he turns it around over his next 8 starts so that he has something to build on heading into the offseason?
I’ll go through those options one-by-one.
1) Waiver placement, claimed.
If this is the route that the Jays go, they risk losing a 28-year-old former all-star who is due a mere $7.75million per season for the next 3 years. I imagine that a team would gladly claim him and hope that a change of scenery and a new pitching coach are all he needs. He’s worth the risk at that price. To “earn” that contract, he needs only be about 75% as good as your typical major league starter, meaning he needs to give you something like a 4.50 ERA over 135 innings. I don’t think it’s a stretch to expect at least that from him moving forward, and to get a guy like that without giving up any prospects is usually wise.
2) Waiver placement, claimed/pulled back and traded or cleared and then traded
This might make sense, because then the Jays could potentially receive a prospect player in return. I’m not sure what a team would offer in return for the right to pay Ricky Romero $7.75million per season for the next 3 seasons (with a $16million option in 4 years and a $600,000 buy-out if the team denies the option, which appears almost certain at this point). My guess is the prospect coming back would be a guy whose upside is as a major league bench player. That isn’t great, and the Blue Jays organization would likely deny it. However, the other team offered a good, young prospect; the Jays would probably go for it.
3) Waiver placement, clears waivers, optioned to Triple A
I don’t like this idea. I’m not convinced that sending a guy like Ricky Romero, a former all-star who is 28 years old and hasn’t lost velocity or movement, to the minors is in anyone’s best interest. Psychologically, I could see that back-firing, similar to what has happened to Daniel Bard in
(that situation is more nuanced, but there are strong parallels too). I also
believe that it’s best if the coaching staff that knows him best work with him.
Listening to comments made by Jays’ manager John Farrell, the issue appears to
be mental as much as physical. I’m not sure that sending him down would help
4) Let him finish the season in the majors and hope that he figures something out
This is my preferred option, for several reasons. First, the team doesn’t have a lot of healthy starting pitchers capable of MLB action, thanks to the flood of injuries they’ve faced this season. Romero might not be good right now, or even mediocre, but he has gone 6 or more innings in 7 of his last 11 starts. So at the very least, he goes out every 5 days and gives the bullpen some rest and doesn’t require the team to call on too many youngsters who aren’t major-league ready. Secondly, the Jays’ season is effectively over. They have 40 games remaining, they’re 10 games below .500, they have been decimated by injuries, and they’re giving the youngsters (many who are clearly not ready for the show yet) an opportunity to get some MLB experience. If Romero gives them 44 innings of ~5.00 ERA ball and doesn’t get blown out more than a couple of times, who cares? Last night he was awful and the team had an outside shot at a comeback in the 9th. The young guys are still getting to play in games with some excitement and pressure, the veterans are still taking at bats with something on the line, and the fans will probably still get to see 4 tight games. Finally, Romero could figure it out! As bad as he’s been, his xFIP is “only” 4.81, and he has contributed positive WAR (0.4). That’s largely due to a decent start to the year, but it’s unfair to evaluate a pitcher solely over 11 starts and 60 innings. Many pitchers have gone through a similarly rough stretch, only to emerge capably.
Romero’s swinging strike rate is still roughly league average (7.8%), he still throws a nasty changeup, and he still averages 91-92mph on his fastball. If he gets back to throwing first-pitch strikes (down to 53% this season when 60% is the gold standard and he’s typically in the 58% range) and can pound the strike zone more consistently, he will go a long way towards making good on his rest-of-season projections (as per ZIPS, he is expected to throw another 51 innings and give up roughly 25 runs, which isn’t good but isn’t bad either).
I’m not the biggest Ricky Romero fan; I think he’s an above-average pitcher (at best) who got a little lucky last season and rode that to an all-star game appearance—it happens all the time--but I believe he’s still a solid piece of the puzzle for the team moving forward. Any pitcher who can give you ~200 innings with a ~4.50 ERA is useful, especially a left-handed one. If some team wants to give up one of their organization’s top 10 prospects and take on his remaining salary, then Alex Anthopoulos should engage. But that’s probably not going to happen, so the team is better off working with him, and hoping that he gets back to pitching the way he has prior to this season.