Ricky Romero Sinking and Not Sinking

A preface:

(1) The Blue Jays are of tremendous interest this year, after having spent the offseason adding R.A. Dickey and the Marlins. Many expect that the Jays will win their division for the first time since 1993. At the very least, if they’re not favorites, they’re close to it.

(2) Ricky Romero is of tremendous interest, because what the hell happened?

(3) We’re suckers for anything having to do with PITCHf/x and player-on-player analysis. What’s that? Players making use of PITCHf/x data in an attempt to improve themselves or others? A FanGraphs post is all but obligatory.

My attention this morning was steered to an article in the National Post by John Lott. It talks about Ricky Romero, and, more specifically, it talks about Romero’s sinking fastball. Romero isn’t going to be the key to the Blue Jays’ attempted turnaround, but he is individually at a delicate place in his career, after 2012 saw his performance tumble like so many tumbleweeds tumbling down a slope and maybe off of a cliff? Romero, of course, has made it a priority to bounce back, and he talks about some help he might’ve gotten from teammate Brandon Morrow:

Brandon Morrow’s research startled Ricky Romero. It showed that Romero had almost given up on a key pitch during his disastrous 2012 season.

In 2011, when his ERA was 2.92, Romero threw sinking two-seam fastballs 22% of the time. Last year, his sinker rate fell to 11%. His ERA was 5.77, worst among big-league starters.

Morrow found those figures on the Brooksbaseball.net website, printed them out and gave them to Romero.

“I was a little bit amazed by it,” Romero said Tuesday, pulling the sheet from his locker.

What we have is evidence that Romero significantly cut his sinker usage. We also have some acknowledgment on Romero’s part that he probably did it for a reason, and we have Romero dedicating himself to throwing the pitch more often from now on. Pitching coach Pete Walker talks a little about how important the pitch is when the lefty Romero is pitching to lefty hitters. This is something that falls in line with a lot of optimistic spring-training articles — it’s no different than an article about a pitcher trying a new pitch — but it feels more substantial than an article about a guy coming to camp with a new attitude. If you want to believe that Ricky Romero can turn things around, you might figure there’s something here, you might figure the sinker frequency will be the key.

Let’s discuss, and let’s start simple. Ricky Romero’s big-league career in a nutshell:

2009: pretty good
2010: pretty good
2011: pretty good
2012: bad

All right, that’ll serve as part of the foundation. Now, about that Brooks Baseball data. Brooks Baseball carefully separates Romero’s two-seam fastball from his four-seam fastball. We just have to take it on faith that the numbers are more or less correct. Romero, for his part, basically confirmed that he does throw both pitches. The two-seamer is Romero’s sinker, and here are his historical rates:

2009: 14%
2010: 13%
2011: 22%
2012: 11%

If you look just at the last two seasons, that’s striking. Previously, though, Romero was effective without a meaningfully different sinker rate than he had in 2012. Last year, by these numbers, Romero threw a sinker once for every nine pitches. In 2010, he threw a sinker once for every eight pitches or so. There were more sinkers, but there weren’t way more sinkers.

But, that’s just overall. The Jays’ pitching coach identified the sinker as a key against left-handed hitters. Here are Romero’s historical sinker rates against lefties:

2009: 11%
2010: 15%
2011: 26%
2012: 8%

That’s a little more significant. There’s a huge drop between the last two seasons, but there’s also a drop relative to 2010. Romero last year did not throw a lot of sinkers to left-handed hitters, by this data. He leaned more heavily on his curve and four-seamer.

But to be perfectly honest, the problem with Romero in 2012 wasn’t so much about left-handed hitters. A breakdown:

wOBA by LHB against Romero

09-11: .364
2012: .390

wOBA by RHB against Romero

09-11: .296
2012: .348

Lefties had more success against Romero, but righties had a lot more success against Romero, as his strikeout rate plummeted to 15%, and his walk rate climbed to 14%. In 2012, Romero threw 13% sinkers to righties. That’s down from his rate in 2011, but it’s right on his rate in 2010, when he was quite effective. Romero has never been real great against left-handed hitters, so to whatever extent the sinker was key for him against lefties before, it wasn’t doing him a lot of good. Dropping the sinker probably didn’t help, but this seems to have been about more than one pitch. Granted, everything is interconnected.

More important than sinker frequency — and a certain factor in determining sinker frequency — is sinker strike percentage. Here’s where we can see something of note, in reviewing Romero’s career:

2009: 59%
2010: 58%
2011: 59%
2012: 50%

The sinker has never been a major pound-the-zone pitch for Romero, but half the time he threw it in 2012, he threw it for a ball. It’s no wonder he threw the pitch less often; he wasn’t able to control it or command it. His four-seamer strike rate didn’t change. His curveball strike rate got a tiny bit better. His changeup strike rate got a good deal worse. Romero lost the feel for his sinker, and so it was less successful, and so it was thrown less often. The changeup data suggests it wasn’t just the sinker feel he lost.

Here’s the ultimate point: there seems to be something meaningful in Ricky Romero’s sinker rate data. His turnaround, though, won’t be as simple as throwing more sinkers. It’s unlikely that Romero’s problems in 2012 came out of him throwing fewer sinkers. His problems came from his locating worse, for whatever reason or reasons. Romero will be as good as his control and command, and his sinker rate could follow that, not guide that. Throwing more sinkers won’t help if they’re balls half the time. Romero needs to find his location, and from there, he can get everything back on track. It sounds so simple until you realize it’s incredibly hard. Romero’s reduced sinker rate was a symptom. It’s on him and his coaches to take care of the cause. Throwing the pitch over and over in the spring couldn’t hurt, but Romero’s going to need his changeup, too, and if mechanical fixes were easy and guaranteed, Romero probably wouldn’t have had the 2012 he had in the first place.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Neil S
9 years ago

That reverse-platoon split is crazy. Why do lefties hit like they’re Jose Bautista against Ricky, a left-handed pitcher?

9 years ago
Reply to  Neil S

I wonder if his pitches have movement to his arm side, which would make them move over towards righties (and thus over the plate when trying to hit the outside corner).

9 years ago
Reply to  Wil

Armside movement for a lefty would be away from a right handed hitter. Since Romero heavily uses a sinker/two-seamer and a changeup, and both of those move armside, then he’s using a lot of pitches that move away from right handed hitters. In general, pitches tend to be more effective when moving away from the hitter. This is why changeups tend to have reverse splits.

9 years ago
Reply to  Bip

Thanks. Yes, for some reason I was thinking about right handers when I wrote my comment. No idea why.

9 years ago
Reply to  Neil S

If I recall correctly Ricky Romero was a pitcher identified by the “Danks Theory” espoused by the rays. Lefties with a good changeup (Danks, Romero) often have reversed splits. Managers like Joe Maddon will actually load up on lefties against them.

The Danks theory definitely could be contributing to the skews in the data from last year, by the way. Teams are making different lineups against RR.

9 years ago
Reply to  Kyle

More on that here.

9 years ago
Reply to  Kyle

Which begs the question – forget the sinker. What happened to RR’s changeup?

9 years ago
Reply to  payroll

I have at least partially answered my own question. Romero faced LHB-RHB at a ration of 1:3 in 2010. It has declined every year, to where ast year, it was 1:2. Fewer RHBs, fewer chances to use your best pitch?

Maybe changeup-reliant pitchers need to take greater accounting for, the “Maddon Theory”

9 years ago
Reply to  payroll

I’m curious about it, so I looked up whether rosters have changed versus Ricky. Percentage of total batters faced, left handed:

2009: 29.7%
2010: 25.1%
2011: 30.3%
2012: 32.3%

Not an incredibly huge uptick… but the right handed batters he was no longer facing in 2012 probably aren’t very good (you wouldn’t adjust a lineup by removing a good player). So therefore you could see how his performance against right-handers would be worse, due to a selection bias. Probably doesn’t account for all of the change, though.

9 years ago
Reply to  Neil S

Because average lefty batters get a day off against Romero, while studs like Cano and Hamilton stay in the line up.