Quick! There’s no time to waste!
Name the five best FIP- seasons in the history of MLB. (Minimum, a scant 20 IP.)
I’d imagine your list includes Eric Gagne‘s crazy 2003 and Pedro Martinez’s nutso 1999 season. And you’d be correct. But there’s another modern-day pitcher you’d have only guessed if you had cleverly looked at the title of this post:
I imagine there are a number of baseball fans who, like myself, had not even heard of Sergio Romo until they made him their setup man while playing Baseball Mogul 2008.
We’ll learn his name because he might be one of the greatest late-blooming relievers in the history of the game.
First, let’s take a moment to marvel over the 1884 Brewers’ then-rookies Porter and Cushman. They pitched only a combined 10 starts preceding their otherwise average careers. But together, they mustered more than 100 strikeouts in those 10 outings. Wow.
(Oh, hey, before I forget, go play with the new leader boards. They’re double-awesome.)
Last year, Romo, backed the league into a corner and slapped it around like E. Honda in Super Street Fighter Turbo 2:
In addition to a ludicrous 25 FIP- (which neutralizes for context), he had the third-best FIP in history and the lowest SIERA (which captures his peripherals more effectively than xFIP) in the stat’s young history (which only goes back to 2002).
All this from a fella who barely cracks 90 mph on his fastball!
Romo, a 28th-round pick for the San Francisco Giants, made his major league debut in 2008 as a 25-year-old. Since then, he has consistently rocked NL hitters (while rocking equally awesome facial hair).
As impressive as his previous seasons had been, Romo’s 2011 was even better. Despite struggling with some elbow and knee issues — and a trip to the 15-day DL — Romo’s 2011 statistics were off the charts. In 48 innings, he put together a season better than any one offering from Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman or John Smoltz. Of course, that’s all just rate-wise — in 2011, he had only 21 shutdowns and six meltdowns. And, at age 28, he’s no Jonny Venters or Craig Kimbrel or chicken of yonder spring.
Still, his 2011 season was nonetheless remarkable. He struck out a whopping 40% of the batters he faced, walking a laughable, video-game-esque 2.9% of his opponents. Pedaling the slider like a breaking ball gypsy, Romo allowed only five walks all season. He only once walked a batter without striking someone out — a June 14 appearance against the Arizona Diamondbacks in which he pitched only to Chris Young, who started 0-2, but worked a sevem-pitch walk. And Romo never walked more than one batter in any appearance.
Should we anticipate this success to continue? Well, like Eno Sarris pointed out, breaking ball fiends appear to be DL-prone. He missed almost 50 games in 2009 with an elbow sprain, so if regression doesn’t kill him, sliders might do it.
But even if he does stay healthy, can he maintain his stupid-good success? Probably not. Romo’s slider-only approach has never been particularly sly against left-handed batters (a career 3.90 FIP against LHB), and in 2011, he kind of got ROOGY’d, facing only 28% lefties after having faced them 35% of the time for the entirety of his career.
This past year, he had a very strong 2.87 FIP against lefties, but it was his 0.25 FIP (yes, that’s not a typo) against righties that propelled him into history books.
What’s especially flabbergasting, though, is how other signs of regression appear to be rather neutral. For instance, his BABIP was above his career norm and his HR/FB ratio was less than a percent lower than his usual rate. His LOB% (83.3%) was actually down from the previous year (86.3%), though it still seemed a touch high (his career rate is 76.6%, but he seemed to either settle in the 60s or 80s).
Also, with a 17% swinging strike rate, it seems likely he can maintain a high strikeout rate, but a 40% K-rate is a not-oft repeated feat. Either his K% will normalize, or his swinging strikes will — but probably both.
Romo seems to have genuinely poured on the Nasty Sauce despite being drafted in the courtesy rounds, having never been a prospect, turning 28 last March and having received almost no national media attention during what might be one of the finest pitching seasons in MLB history.
And though he is almost guaranteed to never repeat his 2011 success, San Francisco has to be happy with their elite, facial-hair-celebrating setup man. Because — at least for now — he’s one of the best.
Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.