The Great Big 2012 Blue Jays Forecast Series, Part 15: Ricky Romero

With spring training officially just under a month away, we continue with a series of projections on what the 2012 Toronto Blue Jays might look like. Each day (don’t hold me to this), I will profile a 2012 Blue Jays starter, closing with a set of numbers based on my (usually positive) expectations. We complete our look at the projected starting rotation today with a few words on the Blue Jays ace, Ricky Romero.

There’s not really an easy way to say this, so let me get it out of the way now: Ricky Romero won’t be as good in 2012 as he was in 2011. Well not without a lot of luck, anyway.

Not to take anything away from his first-ever All-Star season, of course. Romero posted some great surface numbers: 15 wins, a 2.92 ERA and 1.14 WHIP puts him among the best in the the American league last season, a remarkable accomplishment considering it was just his 3rd year in the bigs. Ricky is the undisputed ace of the Blue Jays club, and deservedly so. He averaged over 7 innings per start, held his opponents to a measly .214 BA, and give the Blue Jays a chance to win every time he took the mound in 2011.

That being said, the results don’t tell the entire story here.  In a Morrow-esque way, but only reverse, Romero’s on-field results aren’t exactly what they seem. The 7.12 K/9 rate is good, but was down from 2011, and the 3.20 BB/9 rate is just a fifth of a batter lower than that of Morrows – it’s useful, but not elite. Undoubtedly, the biggest part of Romero’s success was his ability to not give up hits in key situations, and despite a drop in his ability to induce ground balls, he give up significantly less hits this year, from 8.1 H/9 all the way down to 7.0. Ricky’s ability to induce double-plays have always been pretty good, but he ended up with a 18% GIDP rate (a career high) despite inducing less ground balls than his previous 2 seasons – something that helped his strand rate to a MLB top-10 79.2%. Romero’s cutter was slightly improved from 2010, with him throwing it with more consistent horizontal movement and upping the velocity a tick. That could go a long ways to explain just how he ended up that much better in 2011, but the rest of his repertoire didn’t show similar significant progress; to me, his career-low BABIPs (40 point drop from 2010) suggests that Romero’s success was due to both an improved pitch, and likely a symptom of plain luck with batted balls.

Don’t take it as a knock against his skills, though. You have to be good to be lucky, and I’m not saying that Ricky isn’t capable of pitching like a consistent ace in the league – only that he was a little lucky to be an under-3 ERA guy (kind of like Clay Buchholz’s 2.33 ERA 2010). Romero’s stuff is good – great, even – but if you’re only looking at the ERA, I think it’s an inaccurate portrayal of where his skills are at. In short, from a fantasy baseball perspective, he’s probably a little overvalued.

Still, his eye-opening 2011 season came at the most fortuitous moment possible: with the team having traded Shaun Marcum and lacking a #1 pitcher, Ricky stepped up to fill the void after a solid 2010. I could debate how high his ERA should have been compared to his xFIP and all, but there was no arguing that he pitched like the ace of the club. Ricky was, and remains, the only lock in the rotation to pitch 200+ innings, and is by far the most consistent of the Blue Jays pitchers, allowing more than 3 runs in just 6 of his 32 starts. He might not be a Roy Halladay or CC Sabathia yet, but he had the same presence on the mound. Whether that had to do with that fact that he might have been given an extra bit of luck by the baseball gods, who knows.

Better yet, there’s plenty to like about where he could be headed in 2012. Romero changed things up a bit with his arsenal last year, using his fastball significantly more than previous years (60.5% in ’11 vs. 49.3% in ’10) in favour of his slider to set up his change-up (his best pitch). The slider-less approach drew more swings from outside the zone than he’d done, and likely weaker contact off his breaking pitches (evidenced by his declining line-drive rate, from 18.4% to 14.2%). On the other hand, Romero also became more of a fly-ball pitcher in ’11 (and unsurprisingly posted a higher HR/9 than ever), but it’s worth noting that the 1.78 GB/FB rate is still quite healthy, even if there is a 3-year decline in his fly balls ending up in the infield (’09 – 8.5, ’10 – 6.9, ’11 – 5.6). Ideally, Ricky will come into the 2012 season with a more refined cutter that induces weak contact, with better control of the strike zone to maximize the effectiveness of his plus fastball, curve and change.

Really though, even if Romero just came in with the same stuff he had last year, I don’t think any of us would be complaining too much. There are a lot of question marks around the Blue Jays pitching staff in 2012, but I don’t think Ricky Romero is one of them. Whether the ERA is 2.5, 3.00, or 3.50, I don’t think that diminishes what his role is on the ball club, and I think most of us would be comfortable with it.

With all that said, I think Romero’s numbers will be something like this:

220 IP, 3.35 ERA / 1.18 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 3.00 BB/9

Not quite the ERA/WHIP numbers he had in 2011, but I believe that Romero will show continuous improvements in his skill set, consistently eat innings, and keep the Blue Jays in the game each time out. With Alex unable so far to find the right deal for a front line starter to compliment the rotation, Ricky as sure a thing as we’ve got right now; I suspect that will be more than a welcomed element to those of us watching this young rotation in the upcoming year.

What are your thoughts on Ricky? Will his ERA/WHIP be as good as it was last year? Does it make a difference to you? Comment away!

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Previous 2012 Blue Jays forecasts:

Part 1: J.P. Arencibia - 510 PA, .255/.315/.450, 26 HR
Part 2: Adam Lind – 600 PA, .260/.320/.445, 26 HR
Part 3: Kelly Johnson – 580 PA, .270/.350/.430, 16 HR, 11 SB
Part 4: Brett Lawrie – 610 PA, .280/.340/.490, 20 HR, 22 SB
Part 5: Yunel Escobar – 605 PA, .285/.365/.405, 10 HR, 5 SB
Part 6: Edwin Encarnacion – 580PA, .270/.330/.465, 23 HR, 6 SB
Part 7: Eric Thames – 300 PA, .270/.315/.455, 8 HR, 3 SB
Part 8: Travis Snider – 300 PA, .265/.315/.450, 9 HR, 5 SB
Part 9: Colby Rasmus – 590 PA, .260/.325/.445, 19 HR, 14 SB
Part 10: Jose Bautista – 650 PA, .295/.415/.595, 40 HR, 11 SB

Part 11: Henderson Alvarez – 150 IP, 4.25 ERA / 1.28 WHIP, 5.7 K/9, 1.85 BB/9
Part 12: Brett Cecil – 180 IP, 4.40 ERA / 1.35 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 2.95 BB/9
Part 13: Kyle Drabek – 160 IP, 4.65 ERA / 1.45 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 4.3 BB/9
Part 14: Brandon Morrow – 200 IP, 3.50 ERA / 1.22 WHIP, 10.5 K/9, 3.2 BB/9

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