Jordan Romano of the Toronto Blue Jays performed well enough before the end of June that he was named to the 2022 All-Star Game. Romano’s second-half performance has surpassed the first. Why has he pitched better?
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Jordan Romano became the Blue Jays’ closer during the 2021 season. Starting with the 2021 season and ending with the September 4 game, his ERA, xERA, FIP, and xFIP are 2.11, 3.00, 3.08 and 3.34, respectively. In 2022, Romano has 31 saves (tied for second-most) and an 89% SV% (tied for eighth-highest among relievers with a minimum of ten saves). Also, according to a Sportsnet graphic shown during the September 4 telecast, Romano has the most saves (17) in one-run games.
Despite his All-Start Game selection, I think Romano did not pitch as well as some pre-July 1 numbers suggest. Throughout the 2022 season, batters have made hard contact on Romano’s pitches. For the season, his HardHit% ranks in the fourth percentile among all pitchers. Phrased differently, 96% of pitchers have a lower rate of hard contact (on batted balls, with an exit velocity equal to or greater than 95 mph) than Romano. His Barrel% is 42nd percentile, still worse than the median for MLB pitchers.
Before delving into why Romano has pitched better after June 30, I will compare his pre-July performance and aspects of his pitching to the post-June period. First, consider Table 1.
Prior to July, Romano’s K%, ISO and OPS were better than the median for relief pitchers. However, Romano’s 11.0 BB% was almost three percentage points higher than the median for an MLB reliever. Also, Romano’s K% was more than seven percentage points lower than his 2021 K% (33.6%). Furthermore, based on the contact quality, the expected stats illustrate that Romano was below-median. For example, Romano’s xOPS was noticeably higher than his OPS. This xOPS-OPS discrepancy is consistent with the view that Romano benefited from Toronto’s above-average defence. Romano’s performance was aided by the plus two OAA produced by Toronto’s defence when Romano was on the mound. In other words, part of his better-than-median OPS can be attributed, at least in part, to Toronto’s above-average defence, not because of Romano’s good performance. For the record, according to Baseball Savant’s OAA, Romano received MLB-average defence after June 30.
After June 30, Romano’s numbers look much better: there is a lot of blue on the post-June 30 data. The one area that has not improved is the xISO number, which is the expected extra bases per at-bat. Romano’s xSLG was 0.356 after June 30 and 0.390 before July 1. Both figures are higher than the median for a relief pitcher. These metrics illustrate that Romano’s record of allowing hard contact continues even though other aspects of his performance improved after June 30.
Let’s turn to lefty-righty splits. It may come as a surprise to some that Romano’s career splits are reversed. Before the 2022 season, Romano’s career OPS was 0.467 against lefthanded batters and 0.745 versus righthanded batters. Table 2 shows that before July 1, those reverse splits continued in the first part of 2022. His stats when facing righthanded batters are below average for a righthanded relief pitcher; the opposite is true versus lefthanded hitters.
However, Romano has performed well against righthanded batters after June 30. All of the metrics are better than the average. There has been a deterioration in Romano’s effectiveness against lefthanded batters. Still, except for ISO, xISO and xOPS, Romano continued to perform well when facing lefthanded batters.
Some additional background information is required, namely how Romano is being used. During the April-June period, Romano appeared once every 2.7 games played by the Blue Jays; the exact frequency occurred during the July-August period. Also, as Table 3 shows, there has not been a significant change in the distribution of appearances regarding days of rest. Both before July 1 and after June 30, 25% of Romano’s outings have occurred with zero rest days between appearances. Also, the Blue Jays have continued the pre-July practice of giving Romano four or more rest days between outings.
The one usage change is the frequency of multi-inning appearances. Before July, Romano had one multi-inning outing, which accounted for 4% of his appearances. After June, Romano has had six multi-inning outings (30% of his appearances).
I will now focus on some aspects of Romano’s pitching. The areas to explore are as follows:
- Pitch mix and batting data
- Pitch mix and counts
- Pitch location
Table 4 shows the change in pitch mix after June 30 and the related hitting metrics. Before July 1, Romano’s main pitch was the four-seam fastball, which accounted for 54% of pitches. His slider was thrown 45% of the time. After June 30, the slider has become Romano’s primary pitch (59%), and the four-seam fastball accounts for the other 41% of pitches.
Batters fared better against Romano’s fastball before July 1 than they did after June 30. The xBA on his fastball was 0.261 before July 1; it was 0.160 after June 30. Romano’s xISO was also better after June 30. The slider was more effective after June (0.231 xBA) than before July (0.244 xBA). However, the expected isolated power for his slider jumped noticeably from 0.133 before July to 0.175 after. In other words, batters made better contact (a higher rate of extra-base hits) on his slider after June than before July.
There are some other aspects of Romano’s pitches that are noteworthy.
- The average velocity of the four-seam fastball was 96.3 mph before July and 97.5 mph after June. A 1.2 mph in-season increase is significant.
- Concerning the slider, the post-June average velocity was 87.9 mph, a striking 1.1 mph increase from the 86.8 mph of the first part of the season.
- Another notable change is the slider’s higher spin rate after June 30; the average spin rate before July was 2,057 RPMs and 2,120 after June 30.
- For those concerned that there may be a “sticky substances” issue, the Bauer Units are not noticeably higher (an increase from pre-July’s 23.7 Bauer Units to 24.1 after June).
- The spin rate on Romano’s four-seam fastball was a tick higher after June (2,297 RPMs) than before July (2,290 RPMs).
Table 5 presents when Romano’s pitches were thrown. Concerning the first pitch in an at-bat, slider usage increased from pre-July’s 53% to 62% after June. There has been a significant change in what pitch is thrown when Romano is behind in the count. Before July 1, Romano threw his slider 52% of the time; after June 30, that pitch rate increased to 86%. When the count is even, Romano has upped his slider usage from 48% before July to 59% after June 30.
Concerning pitch location, Table 6 and Table 7 show the relevant data points. Table 6 demonstrates that batter performance against Romano declines noticeably as the pitch location moves from the Heart Zone to the Shadow Zone to the Chase Zone. Table 7 shows the changes in pitch location after June 30.
The highlights are as follows:
- Compared to the pre-July pitch distribution, there was an eight-percentage point decrease in the rate that the four-seam fastball was located in the Heart Zone.
- Concerning the slider, there was a three-percentage point increase in pitches thrown into the Heart Zone and an eight-percentage point jump in sliders located in the Shadow Zone.
- Although there was little change in the frequency of pitches thrown into the Chase Zone, the slider was located in the Chase Zone more frequently before July 1 than after June.
Okay, that’s many numbers. Let’s tie everything together to explain why Romano performed better after June 30 than he did before July 1.
First, the fastball and slider were more effective after June 30. The average velocities of the four-seam fastball and slider increased by more than one mph after June. Also, the spin rates were higher on both pitches after June. To bolster the argument that Romano’s fastball and slider were more effective after June, consider the Run Value of each pitch.
Caveat emptor. Because Run Value considers changes in run potential, as Tom Tango noted, it is “highly dependent on the circumstances” (the number of outs and the state of bases occupied). However, I think it is a good indicator of a particular pitch’s effectiveness.
Before July, among the 202 relievers who threw fastballs in a minimum of 45 plate appearances, Romano’s fastball’s Run Value ranked in the 68th percentile (the 100th percentile is the most effective fastball). After June 30, his fastball ranked in the 84th percentile.
The slider story is even better. Before July, among the 203 relievers who threw breaking pitches in a minimum of 30 plate appearances, Romano’s slider’s Run Value was in the 55th percentile. However, among the 100 relievers who threw breaking pitches in a minimum of 30 plate appearances after June, Romano’s slider was 9th best.
Second, Romano’s control improved significantly after June 30. Before July, his 11.0 BB% was higher than his 2021 BB% (9.9%). After June, Romano’s BB% was an uncharitable 1.2%, a noteworthy and likely unstainable improvement. Furthermore, it appears that Romano’s command also improved after June. Overall, the rate of pitches thrown into the Heart Zone after June was 24%; it was 27% before July. The corresponding change was a four-percentage point increase in the rate at which pitches were thrown into the Shadow Zone. As Table 6 data shows, a batter’s metrics are better in the Heart Zone than the Shadow Zone.
Third, Romano’s First Pitch Strike% increased from pre-July 66% to 76% after June. On a related point, before July, Romano was ahead in the count in 34% of his pitches; after June, the rate increased to 44%. Regarding pitching when behind in the count, Romano threw 14% of his pitches after June and 24% before July. For the season, batters have a 0.367 wOBA when Romano is behind in the count and a 0.201 wOBA when he is ahead. Therefore, it is likely that Romano’s post-June performance was better than before July because he was more frequently ahead in the count and less often behind.
In summary, Romano performed better after June because of improved pitch effectiveness, better control and command, throwing first-pitch strikes at a higher rate and, in percentage terms, more/fewer counts when he was ahead/behind. However, there is a word of caution. Throughout the 2022 season, batters have made hard contact (4th percentile HardHit%) and barreled balls at a high rate (42nd percentile Barrel%). If this hard contact profile continues, there may be a performance regression.
The Last Word
Romano was named to the 2022 All-Star Game roster, and I suspect he was selected mainly because he was second in the American League in saves. However, other metrics suggested that Romano was not performing at an All-Star level, including a reduced K%, elevated BB%, and below-median xwOBA and xOPS stats. Then the second half of the 2022 MLB campaign began. Romano performed better after June, as evidenced by a minuscule BB% and better metrics in general. The improved performance can be linked to better pitch effectiveness, better command and control, and being ahead in counts at a higher rate than he was before July. The one cautionary note is that batters have very high hard contact and barrel rates on Romano’s pitches. If that pattern continues, Romano may be unable to sustain his July-August performance level. No doubt fans of the Toronto Blue Jays hope that Romano’s post-June performance level continues during the drive towards a playoff berth and into the postseason.
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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.