Romano 2.0: Why the Blue Jays Need to Add Another Closer

The Toronto Blue Jays have a bullpen that has performed at an average level. One acquisition need is another high-leverage reliever to join Jordan Romano in the pen. Who are some potential bullpen trade targets for the Jays?


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As of June 7, Toronto’s bullpen has been middle-of-the-pack by many key metrics. Concerning FIP, xERA, OPS and xOPS, Blue Jay relievers rank 21st, 20th, 15th and 25th, respectively. Led by Jordan Romano, the Blue Jays’ Save Conversion Rate (“SV%”) is 68%, ranking 13th. Houston has the highest SV% at 83%, Boston’s 40% mark is MLB’s worst and the median is 67%. Regarding saves plus holds as a percentage of all save situations, Toronto’s 83.8% conversion rate is 17th. The median is 84.4%; the bookend bullpens are the Astros (94.1%) and the Cubs (69.8%). I don’t think the bullpen has been overworked. The Jays are 7th in innings pitched per start. The work distribution among the relievers (innings and TBF) is evenly distributed.

 

Table 1 shows some data for Toronto’s primary relievers. David Phelps, Tim Mayza, and Yimi Garcia have pitched very well. Romano and Adam Cimber have been average; Trevor Richards and Julian Merryweather have been poor.

 

In a previous article, I outlined why the Blue Jays should add another left-handed reliever to join Mayza. One of the issues I addressed in that piece was Toronto’s need to enhance the swing-and-miss capabilities of their reliever corps. Currently, the Jays only have two relievers with above-median Whiff%: Romano (87th percentile) and Richards (93rd percentile).

 

In contrast, the Yankees have eight relievers with Whiff% percentile rankings better than the median. Michael King (99th percentile) and Clay Holmes (90th) are the two best Yankees. The Whiff% percentile rankings of Aroldis Chapman and Wandy Peralta, both lefties, are 75th and 81st, respectively. Toronto should up their bullpen Whiff% game.

 

Why have more swing-and-miss arms in the bullpen? Isn’t an out, an out no matter how it occurs? Well, no. There are situations when a strikeout is the desired outcome, such as a runner on third with less than two outs. From the perspective of the team in the field in this scenario, a strikeout is preferable to a sacrifice fly. Is a strikeout guaranteed in such a setting? No, but do you like the chances of getting a strikeout with a pitcher with a 30% strikeout rate or one with a 20% K rate? I’ll take Mr. 30%, please.

 

Therefore, having more swing-and-miss bullpen arms gives Charlie Montoyo extra in-game options. If there is a high-leverage situation in which a double play is the desired outcome, Cimber is a proven arm in that scenario. During the 2019-2022 period, his GIDP rate is 11.9% (136 opportunities); the MLB average is 9.9%. Phelps has been even better with his 17.2% in 64 GIDP situations. When a strikeout is the desired result in high leverage situations, the Jays will benefit from having another good, high K%/Whiff% arm.

 

Why Romano 2.0? I think the Blue Jays need another high-leverage bullpen arm to split the role with Romano 1.0 because of Toronto’s apparent belief that Original Romano performs best when he does not appear on consecutive days. During the 2021-2022 period, 17% of the batters faced by Romano 1.0 have occurred on no days rest; 33% on one day of rest and 23% on two days rest.

 

Hence, having Romano 1.0 or Romano 2.0 available for all games would improve the bullpen. Furthermore, if both Romano 1.0 and 2.0  are available in a game, perhaps Montoyo could use one of the Romanos in a high-leverage situation in the seventh inning (a la Cleveland’s 2016 usage of Andrew Miller), yet still have the other Romano if needed later in the game.

 

Accordingly, I have complied a trade-target list of Romano 2.0 candidates. I used the following screens to identify candidates:

  • Concerning K%, K%-BB%, xERA, OPS and xOPS, each candidate has a minimum of four scores better than the 70th percentile among relievers
  • Of the candidates that met the criteria described above, the target has a Whiff% percentile better than the 70th percentile
  • At least 50 career MLB innings
  • As of June 7, the trade target should play for a team unlikely to make the postseason. In other words, the targeted player’s team may be willing to execute a transaction well before the August 2 trade deadline.

 

Three relievers met the noted criteria: David Bednar, David Robertson and Tyler Kinley. I have used four tables to analyze the candidacy of the noted pitchers.

  • Table 2 – Key metrics when facing all hitters
  • Table 3 – The percentile rankings of critical metrics against all hitters, including xERA and Whiff%
  • Table 4 – A replication of Table 1 except versus lefthanded batters
  • Table 5 – The same metrics as Table 1 but limited to the results when facing right-handed hitters

 

I included Garcia in Tables 2 to 5 because he has more career saves than any Blue Jays reliever on the current roster. Unless expressly noted, all data references include the results against both lefthanded and righthanded batters.

Analysis

The first item to note is how poorly Romano 1.0 has fared when facing right-handed batters. Compared to his record facing left-handed batters, Romano struggles against right-handed hitters. His xOPS is elevated, and his K% is much lower. This observation holds for the 2021 season. Accordingly, one attribute that Romano 2.0 should have is similar splits when facing batters on either side of the plate.

 

Bednar is a premier reliever with a fastball that averages 96.5 mph. During the 2021-2022 period, his xERA, FIP, K% and SV% are 2.42, 2.45, 33.7% and 81.3%, respectively. Bednar has a three-pitch arsenal: four-seam fastball (60%), curveball (27%) and sinker (13%). His 2022 WPA is 1.49, trailing only Holmes (1.96) and Milwaukee’s Josh Hader (1.75) among relievers.

 

Robertson is a name likely familiar to many MLB observers. The 2022 campaign is the 37-year-old reliever’s fourteenth MLB season, nine of which were playing for the Yankees. During the 2014-2017 period, Robertson recorded a 86% SV% (124 saves) and a 2.83 FIP. Starting in 2018, Chapman became the Yankees’ closer, and Robertson assumed a lesser role in the Yanks’ bullpen. However, he posted a 2.97 FIP during the 2018 campaign. Robertson signed a free-agent contract with Philadelphia for the 2019 season but suffered an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in April 2019. He did not pitch the balance of the 2019 season or the 2020 campaign. In August 2021, Robertson joined Tampa and logged 12 innings for the Rays, recording a 3.67 FIP. In March 2022, he signed a free-agent contract with the Cubs.

 

Robertson is not a high-velocity pitcher. His sinker, which accounts for 55% of his pitch mix, averages 93.0 mph. His two other pitches are a slider (24%) and a curveball (21%). Concerning WPA, his 1.39 slots in at #7 among relievers.

 

Kinley may be a surprise candidate to some people. During the 2018-2021 period, he posted a 4.19 xERA and a 4.70 FIP. Those are not awe-inspiring numbers. However, Kinley has been much better in 2022. His K% percentile ranking is only 66th, but because he has a low BB%, his K%-BB% is 75th percentile. Kinley’s excellence shows up in his xOPS, xERA and Whiff% percentile rankings at 84th, 86th and 87th, respectively.

 

Kinley’s arsenal is primarily a four-seam fastball (46% usage) and a slider (52% utilization). The fastball has an average velocity of 95.4 mph; the four-seamer has a minus 2 Run-Value, and the slider is even better at a negative 4. Kinley’s 2022 WPA is 1.24, tied for twelfth among relievers.

 

The truth is that Kinley does not have much of a history as a closer. In 2022, he appeared in ten save situations, all of which were hold opportunities. I included him in the list because he is an excellent candidate to replace Merryweather, who has options, or Richards (no options).

Acquisition Cost

The 2022 season is Bednar’s age-27 campaign; he is under team control until 2027. Robertson is a free agent after this season, and Kinley is 31 and is eligible for free agency after 2026.

 

According to Baseball Trade Values, the trade value of Bednar is USD 31.9 million. Because top-end closers are usually in high demand at the trade deadline, Bednar’s trade value will likely include a premium. Therefore, the cost to acquire Bednar will probably be in the range of a Danny Jansen (USD 39.9 million).

 

The player capital cost to add Robertson or Kinley should be much less. Robertson’s BTV is zero, suggesting a player-value range from Bowden Francis (USD 1.5 million) to Leo Jimenez (USD 4.6 million). The BTV needed to acquire Kinley (USD 3.0 million) should be between Jimenez and Otto Lopez (USD 6.0 million).

 

In my opinion, the acquisition cost for Bednar is very high. He is an elite reliever and definitely can fill the Romano 2.0 role. However, there is a high, season-to-season performance-variability risk associated with relievers. Part of the relatively high BTV for Bednar is the inherent premium to acquire a player with multiple years of control. Accordingly, paying for the future with the inherent reliever performance risk is too rich for me.

 

Robertson is my preferred candidate. He has experience as a top-end closer, is pitching very well, and the player cost is reasonable. I would not make the trade for Kinley at this time. Perhaps Richards and Merryweather can turn their seasons around. There is also the hope that Nate Pearson can return and approach his 2020 postseason performance level (two innings, no hits or walks and five strikeouts).

The Last Word

Toronto’s bullpen has been average thus far in 2022. Compared to the Yankees, the Blue Jays’ have fewer swing-and-miss relievers. Romano 1.0 has also been adequate, but he does have top-quartile K% and Whiff% scores. The ballclub would benefit significantly if the Blue Jays acquired a Romano 2.0. First, adding a high-end, high-leverage reliever is always a good thing. Second, Toronto would move closer to the swing-and-miss capabilities of the Yankees. Third, Montoyo would have more in-game options with Romano 1.0 and Romano 2.0 at his disposal. In my opinion, David Robertson is the ideal Romano 2.0 trade target.

 

 

 

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Bob Ritchie

Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.