[Photo credit: Barrett McClean/Pensacola Blue Wahoos]

[Photo credit: Barrett McClean/Pensacola Blue Wahoos]

Midway through the Southern League season, Sal Romano had just one Double-A win to his name. In an effort to reverse his fortunes, he traded lockers and music recommendations with outfielder Jeff Gelalich, who was facing a similar slump.

“He put his bats in mine, I put my gloves in his and then he mentioned something about my walk-out [music],” said Romano, a Connecticut native and unexpected country music fan. “He told me a song, I listened to it a couple of times throughout the week and I was like, ‘You know what, I can dig that.’”

That song is Jason Aldean’s “Lights Come On,” a fitting description of Romano’s rapid progression as a pitcher. He built on his second-half success with eight scoreless innings on Tuesday, facing two above the minimum in a 5-2 victory. The shutout bid was his fourth in his last 10 starts, including a near-perfect outing on July 29 and another eight-inning gem on August 20.

“He’s come so far and it’s fun to see,” Pensacola manager Pat Kelly said. “We saw the struggles in April and May. You knew the stuff was there, it was just a matter of being able to put it all together.”

Romano is posting the best strikeout rate of his career (8.40 K/9, 22.3 percent of batters faced) and his lowest walk rate (1.98 BB/9, 5.3 percent). Since the All-Star break, Romano’s 0.96 WHIP is the second-lowest mark among Southern League pitchers and his 2.16 ERA ranks third. Opponents are hitting .220 against him in his last 13 starts, sixth in the league over that span, with an OPS nearly 130 points below the league average.

He’s been even sharper since July 12, striking out 58 over 64 innings with just seven walks to produce a league-best 0.81 WHIP. Romano’s 1.55 ERA in that time frame ranks second and his .194 opposing average ties for fifth.

“Sal has been outstanding this half, which is a credit to the work that he and [pitching coach] Danny Darwin put in this summer,” said Reds director of player development Jeff Graupe. “Sal has discovered who he is as a pitcher and what type of routine and preparation works for him. He has been one of the best stories of the season, in my opinion.”

Sal, short for Salvatore, shares a first and last name with Bryan Batt’s character in Mad Men. But the 2011 23rd-round pick out of Southington High School is more of a joker. And as he modified his pregame routine, Romano asked himself, “Why so serious?”

“I’m just having fun and being who I am,” Romano said. “I’m not trying to be some heavy-headed guy or be so serious before I pitch. That’s not who I am, that’s not the type of person I am. … When I get between the lines, that’s when business is supposed to happen. But before the game, I’m not really thinking about it. I’m having fun, smiling and joking around the clubhouse.”

Armed with a fastball Baseball America rates as the best in the organization and a reliable out pitch in his curveball, Romano is increasingly confident in his changeup. He tinkered with two different grips before finding a fit and slowly took it from his side sessions to the game.

“I’ve never really realized how good it actually is,” Romano said. “To be honest, I really don’t know if I’ve always had it because I didn’t throw it. I never trusted it during the game [before].”

Reds manager Bryan Price values the changeup as a stepping stone in learning how to pitch instead of simply throw. For a young rotation loaded with power arms, mastering the pitch has been a point of focus for many Pensacola pitchers.

“A lot of young kids are afraid it’s going to get hit, but it’s meant to be hit,” Darwin said. “Sal really had a lot of problems with throwing it during the game. On the side, it was excellent. It’s just a matter of knowing they’re going to put the ball in play and trusting it.”

Romano relies primarily on his fastball, choosing between a daunting high-90s heater or a two-seamer with heavy sink. The latter has produced an inordinate number of groundballs over his career, though the rate is nearing equilibrium this season. Refining his pitch sequencing from month to month, Romano can mix in a changeup after an elevated fastball to induce weak contact and keep the ball in the park.

“Some guys can time up my fastball,” Romano said. “No matter how hard it is, they can time it up. To be able to throw the changeup and get their timing off, it’s become a really big pitch for me.”

Romano could flirt with triple digits as a reliever and the bullpen seems like his most likely destination. But this season has been a strong defense of his durability. He has registered 11 quality starts and pitched into the seventh inning 10 times, both career highs.

The Pensacola roster includes three members of the Reds’ 40-man roster, all pitchers. With Rookie Davis optioned back to Pensacola on Monday, the Reds would like to see them finish what they started. That means the call of a lifetime potentially won’t come for a few more weeks as the Wahoos contend for their third straight division title. But Romano will be ready, wherever and whenever the lights come on.

18 Responses

  1. cfd3000

    Good read, encouraging update. I’m not sure I understand why a guy like Romano would already be targeted for the bullpen though. He’s got the best fastball in the minors, or close, he’s a big guy with three solid pitches, and he’s thriving as a starter at AA. Since starters are more valuable than relievers in all but a few rare cases, why relegate him already? To me that’s a starter in the making until he proves otherwise. I’ll look forward to further development and to seeing him in Cincinnati before too long. Thanks Kourage.

    • Kourage Kundahl

      Seeing the strides his changeup has made, I’m not sure why either. Earlier this season when he was a big guy with two solid pitches, he could have fit right into a major league bullpen. But Romano led the Dayton staff in IP two years ago and he currently leads the Wahoos, so I think he can stick in the rotation.

      • lwblogger2

        It would seem to me that he should at least get the opportunity.

      • Kourage Kundahl

        Absolutely, he will. Should be plenty of prospects battling for the No. 5 spot in the spring.

  2. The Duke

    Romano is a big guy too, and he looks built to go out and throw 220 IP year after year. With some of the more touted arms scuffling a bit this year, I think it is very premature to rule out Romano getting a chance in the Reds rotation sometime in 2017-2018. Not to mention you never know where the injury bug is going to strike. The Reds top 4 of the rotation should be pretty set going into 2017 with Baily, Disco, Finnegan, and Straily, but if I’m the Reds, I let Romano duke it out with Lamb, Stephenson, Reed, and Garrett in spring training battling for that fifth spot. More than likely Romano can use some time in AAA next season, but I at least let him compete and show you what he can do. We bumped Cueto up from AA to the big league rotation back in the day, let the best man win.

  3. lost11found

    True. Let him start until he shows he can’t handle it. Next stop AAA. the Bullpen could be a nice way to get his feet wet late next year though in vein similar to David Price with Tampa.

  4. WVRedlegs

    Nice write up Kourage. The cream is rising to the top.
    Romano, like Finnegan at the ML level, has really stepped up his game in the second half and both have cemented themselves as starters now. Romano has sailed past Travieso as a prospect and leads a nice pack of Romano, Davis, Travieso, Stephens, and Mahle. Romano, Davis, and Stephens should all start out at AAA next year. With Amir Garrett and Cody Reed, this will help to push Robert Stephenson to the bullpen or part of a trade package.

  5. Dan

    Bullpen his most likely destination? First time I have heard that one. This guy is about to over take Stephenson.

    • Kourage Kundahl

      I probably could have phrased that better. Most of that talk was based on not having a third pitch, development of his changeup keeps him in SP discussion. “High-energy approach and velocity would also allow him to move quickly as a high-leverage reliever or closer,” to quote Baseball America. But they think he’s a future No. 4 starter and I would tend to agree.

      • greenmtred

        Could somebody who knows more than I do (most of you) explain why Romano, with a high-90’s fastball and two other decent pitches, would top out as a 4th starter? I’ve noticed this before in projections of pitchers. I get that issues of competitiveness, durability and command factor in, but with young pitchers, I would think that those attributes could still be developed.

  6. mdhabel

    Great article. I had not been keeping close tabs on Romano but that is definitely going to change. Interesting to hear how both him and Finnegan have developed the changeup and both are now looking like potential 3/4 starters.

  7. Patrick Jeter

    Great story, KK. I love reading about some of the slightly-less-heralded Reds prospects.

  8. ohiojimw

    Maybe Sal Romano is set up, to become “the next Cueto” at least in as far that while we watched others (Stephenson, Garrett, Reed) he has somewhat quietly moved toward the head of the class.

  9. IndyRedMan

    Of course the best way to utilize arm talent is as a starter but many really hard throwers like Romano find that it actually works against them. They come up just overmatching people with the heater so the Kiss principle applies and they don’t develop their other pitches. Plus they’re used to trying to K everyone so the concept of pitching to contact is like trying to drag someone out of McDonalds to run a marathon! Some guys can throw 98 and dial it down to 94-95 as a starter and use their secondary pitches and become a good starter (Lorenzen ?) but many can’t (Wood/Jumbo/etc). Either way….sounds like he has a great chance to help the Reds in the near future!!

    • sultanofswaff

      I think that change from reliever mentality to starter mentality (along with the improved changeup) is the biggest difference I’ve seen from Finnegan as the year goes on. The light is coming on.

      • Shchi Cossack

        If anyone hasn’t read the Price’s comments regarding fastball velocity, fastball command and the need for a quality offspeed pitch that KK referenced in his post, you should take the time to read it. This is Price at his best, talking about what he knows best.

      • mdhabel

        You would think if it is that much of a focus we would be throwing more than league average

      • Shchi Cossack

        MD, that would go back to the inconsistent or non-existent organizational philosophy. Price knows pitching. He’s proven that he’s one of the elite piching coaches in professional baseball, but his expertise does no good except at the major league level when it’s only available or used once a pitcher reaches the major league level.

        Let’s hope Dick Williams addresses that problem that has plagues the Reds baseball organization since WJ took the reigns. We should begin to see Williams’ stamp (good or bad) on the Reds baseball orgaization in about 3 months.