Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ricky Romero: The great, the bad, the bobblehead

What's that bobblehead worth?

As Ricky Romero tweeted earlier today:

Ricky's pretty excited about his day tomorrow, and indeed the kid from East LA has come a very long way. This year, the first in his 4 year, 27.5 million dollar contract (plus a $M13 option for 2016), has seen some downs for sure, after he was surely the ace of this ball club at the start of the year. 

Ricky was born in East Los Angeles, Calfornia, Ricky portrays himself as a tough kid from East LA who feels lucky enough to make it to the Show.

I'm going to try to explain to my few followers why I think Ricky is having a tough time this year, and to give you a background on Ricky's young career in the majors.

High school, college, and the minors

Attending Garfield high school (famous for the movie Stand and Deliver) and then Roosevelt (also in LA) for his senior year, his dominance as a pitcher became apparent. According to the Cal State Fullerton's web site,

"Posted a dominant senior season for Roosevelt H.S.• As a senior, he was named the L.A. City Section co-Player of the Year and the Eastern League co-MVP • Posted a 12-1 record along with a 0.53 ERA and 162 strikeouts (and just 27 walks) in 80 innings while opponents batted just .110 • Led all Southern California in strikeouts and struck out at least 10 batters in every start • Hurled nine complete games and two shutouts, including a no-hitter against his former school, Garfield, in which he recorded 14 of 15 outs by strikeouts (the game was shortened to five innings due to the mercy rule) • Tossed a one-hitter and fanned 17 in an eight-inning win over Narbonne
Impressive. At Cal State Fullerton, he started as a middle reliever and made some spot starts in his freshman year. In his next year, he emerged as an elite starter:

"TITANS `04: Was second in the conference with 14 victories, trailing only Long Beach State's Jered Weaver (15) •  Had the best winning percentage (.778) of any Titan pitcher  •  Threw back-to-back complete games against Houston (Feb. 21) and Georgia Tech (Feb. 28), allowing only one run in 18 innings while striking out 22 • Threw a complete game shutout on Apr. 9 vs. Pacific, scattering only four hits in the 13-0 win • Was 5-0 in his last six decisions including two wins at the College World Series, and one each in the Regional and Super Regional • Was named to the College World Series All-Tournament team after going 2-0 in 15.2 innings (including a complete game vs. Miami on Jun. 21) while striking out 15 • Was 3-1 with a 1.57 ERA while pitching for Team USA last summer."
Boston drafted him first in the 37th round of the 2002 draft, but he didn't sign with them. But the performance was too much for the Jays to pass by, and he was selected sixth in the 2005 amateur draft as the first pitcher drafted. Notable pitchers also drafted that year included Andrew Bailey, Sergio Romo, Doug Fister, Jeremy Hellickson, Tim Lincecum, Tommy Hanson, Matt Garza, Clay Buchholz, and John Axford, among others.

He was rated the #87 Prospect by Baseball America and had a 2.1 million signing bonus.

Ricky's early years in the minors in 2006 and 2007 were riddled by injury with shoulder and elbow problems. His stats in AA New Hampshire were not that great in 2008 with a WHIP of 1.595 and ERA of 4.96 over 21 starts. AAA Syracuse was much better with an ERA of 3.38 and a K/9 of 8.0.

2009 - 2010 - Welcome to the Show

Romero earned a job on the starting rotation for the 2009 Jays by pitching very well in spring training under Cito Gaston. Ricky was on the staff with ace Roy Halladay and unremarkables David Purcey, Jessie Litsch and  Scott Richmond. Ricky started off brilliantly, had an strained elbow because of a "violent sneeze", then came back and after a couple of rough starts, pitched brilliantly up to the All Star Break with an ERA of 2.38 and a WHIP of 1.2 over 8 starts including three wins in a row against Philadelphia, Tampa, and the Yankees.

Things went downhill after the all-star break. For the rest of the season, he went 6-6 with an ERA of 5.54, a WHIP of 1.77 and batters were hitting to a .829 OPS off of him, just not very good. But the rest of the pitching staff was not very good either (save Halladay), and even the offensive prowess of Adam Lind and Aaron Hill could not stop the team from having a losing season.

2010 was much, much better for Romero. With Roy Halladay gone to the Phillies, the Jays rotation at the beginning of 2010 was Marcum, Tallet, Romero, Morrow, and Eveland. Ricky performed excellently as a number two starter behind Shawn Marcum, with an ERA of 3.73 and a WHIP of 1.29. Ricky had some great games, opening the season with 6 earned runs in his first four starts, a five hit shutout at Texas, a six hit shutout at Baltimore, and a couple of 8 inning starts, including a 2 hitter against the Yankees on August 3rd. He had some rough outings two, including two starts in a row against the Yankees and Boston where he couldn't get out of the 3rd inning. Romero had a decent end of the season. He pitched 3 shutouts, and 7 other starts where he pitched into the 8th inning. Not bad for $400K. But Romero was 4th in the league in walks.

2011 - All star

2011 was Romero's best year. He had the 6th best ERA in the AL at 2.92, 7th in the league in H/9, pitched 4 complete games, and pitched in the all-star game. Though he was 4th in the AL in walks with 80, Romero was the team's defacto, bona fide ace. Ricky only had four tough starts in the year, two against Boston, and one against Detroit and the Yankees. His WHIP was 1.14, and his breaking ball and change up was tremendously successful. Despite his 15-11 record, he had some games with very poor run support. And in a the season's starting rotation that included the rookie Kyle Drabek, Jessie Litsch, Jo Jo Reyes, and Brett Cecil, Romero was the ace (especially during Morrow's off year).

Ricky's gift in 2011 and earlier years is the ability to get out of jams. With RISP in 2011, batters hit .171 / .276 / .262 against him. When runners were on first, Ricky clamped down on the walk, only walking in 5% of plate appearances, (vs 9% when the bases were empty).

But equally interesting for 2011 was that Romero's worst inning is the 5th, and Romero's worst hitter is the #5 hitter in the lineup. (they have an ridiculously high .326 / .417 / .618 stat -- consider that the #4 man in the lineup bats .162 / .217 / .232). His OPS against is also much higher against the lead off hitter in an inning.

The other interesting thing about Ricky is that even though he throws left, left hitting hitters hit substantially better (.269) than righthanders (.194). This is very likely due to his sweeping curve ball which completely fools the right handed hitters but cannot use against the left handed hitters.

Now, for 2012, many analysts pointed at Ricky's BABIP (Batting Average with balls in play) of .245 which is well below the league average of .290 meanng that he was experiencing some luck in fielding. In addition, he had a very low line drive rate, which also points to luckiness for the pitcher. As a result, many people were expecting Ricky to have a tougher year in 2012.

2012 - Rough times

But 2012 for Ricky just has not been  good at all. He's had the benefit early on of alot of run support, which explains his 8-1 start, despite a 4.34 ERA and a WHIP of 1.34 with 46 walks over 95.1 innings. His BABIP was still below the league average at .254. Rough times were to come.

Since June 27th, Ricky has yet to record a win (due to bad run support and poor outings). His ERA over 10 starts is 7.45 with 33 walks over 54.1 innings pitched and a WHIP of 1.84. His BABIP was well above the league average at .348. His starts in those past 10 have been very inconsistent with 5 games of recording 6 earned runs or more. In his other 5 starts, he's done much better with 9 earned runs in 32 innings pitched (2.53 ERA) and a WHIP of 1.18, including starts against the Yankees, Cleveland, and the White Sox.


The issue with Ricky right now is his consistency. His bases on balls has always been a problem, and when he struggles with his fastball command, he cannot get ahead of his hitters and therefore cannot use his curve ball which usually lands well outside of the strike zone. The opposing batters have recognized this and sit on the fastball, especially if he isn't placing it well.

I don't think it's a coincidence at all that his terrible slide started to happen when Morrow, Drabek, and Hutchinson went down starting June 11. I think that he took on all of the pressures on the team onto his shoulders, and started to try to be perfect. With the Jays in the midst of still competing for a wild card spot, I think he took it on himself to be the ace of the team and to perform really well. I believe that the pressure has gone to his head, and as a result, his pitching suffered.

Ricky's splits are quite different this year. His RISP numbers are just average compared to his numbers overall. He still does not pitch particularly well to leadoff hitters (OPS .783). His walk rate with men on 1st is double (10%) of what it was last year. His worst hitters in the lineup are at the bottom of the order (batting .277 vs .249 for the middle of the order). This shows a lack of concentration. In addition, John Farrell gives all of his pitchers a fairly short leash, going to the bullpen later in games with the starting pitcher gets into any sense of a jam. This frustrates any starting pitcher, but none more so than Romero.

Romero plays with passion. He wants to win, and it's clear from his emotional outbursts (the yelling into his glove, his outbursts on the bench) that I think he plays a very dangerous game inside of his head. I also don't think it's a coincidence that he had three good starts in a row beginning of the end of July when he realized that the team would not be competing for the playoffs -- the pressure was off and he could relax. 

My belief is that if Ricky can stop trying to be perfect and just go out there and live for each individual at bat and each individual inning, the game will come back to him. He needs to place his fastball just right, and be able to use his curve ball with two strikes and less than 3 balls to get people out. He has got to get rid of the pressure in his head and just concentrate on the task at hand.

He proved last year that he can be the ace of this team. I still beleive that he and Brandon Morrow can be a formibable duo at the head of the rotation.

Ricky, just take the pressure off yourself and pitch. Then, maybe in a few years, that bobblehead will be a collectible.

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