Sal Romano has the fastball velocity. He has a nice breaking ball to work with, as well. Neither of them are elite pitches, but they give the right-hander a solid foundation to work from. Two-pitch starting pitchers without dominant stuff are rare for a reason, however: it’s hard to keep hitters guessing when they have a 50/50 shot of knowing what’s being thrown at them. This is especially true when facing a pitcher for the third or fourth time in a game.

Developing a changeup has been Romano’s mission since coming to the major leagues. Why the Reds didn’t have him work on the pitch more in the minor leagues — similar to what they did with Tony Cingrani — is a mystery. While Romano showed increased confidence in throwing the pitch as 2017 wore on, he’s shied away from it through three starts in 2018. It wasn’t a dominant offering for Romano last year by any means, but it kept batters from having a good idea of what was coming in certain counts or adopting the “sit on the fastball, react to the breaking ball” approach.

Thus far, Romano has only thrown 20 changeups in 266 pitches, or 7.5 percent of the time. Last season, he used it 9.6 percent of the time, a number that steadily increased as 2017 wore on (at least until his last three starts).

It’s clear Romano doesn’t have a great feel for the changeup, as he’s put it in the zone only 34.2 percent of the time he’s thrown it in his brief major-league career. He registered only a 5.6 percent swinging-strike rate on it last year and sits at a measly 5.0 percent through three starts this season.

Without a ton of movement, the change is often an easy take for batters. Romano got opposing hitters to chase it out of the zone only 21.9 percent of the time last year, and that number has dropped to 16.7 percent in 2018.

Let’s compare those figures to someone with an elite changeup like Luis Castillo:

Zone%
O-Swing%
SwStr%
xMov
zMov
Sal Romano
34.2%
21.3%
5.5%
-6.1
7.3
Luis Castillo
36.2%
47.0%
24.8%
-9.3
2.4

Romano is probably never going to have a change like Castillo, but the table demonstrates just how much the pitch is still a work in progress. Without even looking at the movement metrics on the far right side of the table, you can see how much more English is on Castillo’s changeup just by looking at those swings and misses, especially out of the zone. Romano’s change doesn’t get much drop at all right now, nor does it ride in on right-handed hitters or dart away from lefties even remotely close to the way Castillo’s does. In short, it’s not fooling hitters.

However, mostly shying away from it might be hurting him when it comes to putting away his opponents.

With two strikes, hitters have a slash line of .320/.452/.440 against Romano in 2018. That may be nothing more than an early-season statistical anomaly. The walk rate (12.5%) is obviously a concern. But that batting line may also be a result of not getting many swings and misses, meaning he’s either nibbling around the edges of the strike zone in deep counts or having to rely on his fielders and the ball bouncing his way too much.

The right-hander has managed a poor 9.7 percent strikeout rate to this point, largely because his primary secondary offering hasn’t been effective. After registering an above-average 18.6 SwStr% on his slider — his primary putaway pitch — in 2017, Romano has a pedestrian 11.3 SwStr% on the pitch this year.

Poor control is undoubtedly hurting him on the breaking ball; he’s thrown it in the strike zone only 22.9 percent of the time vs. 35.9 percent last year. Batters are chasing it less as a result (35.4% vs. 39.9%) and swinging at it fewer times overall (45.2% vs. 51.6%). And when his slider control is poor, it makes not having a reliable third pitch even more costly. Those factors have played a large role in his 5.87 ERA and 5.88 xFIP through three outings.

Perhaps nothing shows Romano’s hesitance to throw the changeup more than this stat: he’s used it zero times with two strikes this season. When he needs a putaway pitch, he’s going with the fastball more often than not because his slider hasn’t been reliable. Hitters know it, too, crushing the pitch for a .488 slugging percentage (.513 in 2017) and .218 isolated power (.220).

With two strikes, here’s Romano’s pitch selection this year and last year:

4-Seam
Slider
Change
2017
46.00%
50.00%
3.50%
2018
54.69%
37.50%
0.00%

Romano has good fastball velocity (93.9 mph in 2018, 95.2 mph in 2017), but if a batter knows it’s coming when they get down in the count, the results won’t always be positive. Fortunately, Romano gets a lot of groundballs (50.8% for his career), even with the heater (44.2%), to make up for it. Ideally, he’ll also get a few more strikeouts as the weather heats up and he gains more control of his slider like he had last year.

On days his breaking ball isn’t sharp, though, he needs that changeup more than ever. Right now, it just isn’t there. Perhaps he’ll start to unleash it more as the 2018 season wears on, much like he did last year, but it’s something to keep an eye on when Romano takes the mound tonight and moving forward.

Growing up just north of Cincinnati, Matt has been a Reds fan for as long as he can remember. As a kid, he was often found leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 and imitating his favorite players (Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns) in the backyard. One of his earliest baseball memories is attending the final night game at Cinergy Field. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in the Dayton area. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

Join the conversation! 28 Comments

  1. might have to be used in the pen.
    i could see him being dominant there

  2. Good stuff, Matt. This is one of the reasons I believe Romano should be doing his learning in Louisville. (Bob Steve, on the other hand, probably needs to be doing his learning–and it won’t always be pretty–in Cincinnati.)

    • Thanks, Eric! I hope to see Bob Steve back in the big league rotation sometime this year, too. Only Castillo rivals his raw stuff.

  3. This is one of those cases where modern analytics trumps old school hard. Armed with this information opposing teams are going to continue to beat Romano. It’s easy to be patient when there are only two pitches coming. Walk rates will rise, causing Romano to nibble, causing walk rates to rise, forcing Romano to eventually groove fastballs. Calling Mario Soto! I agree that Romano would be better off honing a changeup in AAA, even if he gets hammered for a while. Next man up in Cincinnati should be Garrett, then Stevenson, then Reed (after his own AAA developmental rotation time), and perhaps DeSclafani or Lorenzen pending full health. There’s no need for Romano to get pounded in the major leagues. That’s not good for his development, or the Reds.

  4. Great article. Scouts have been worried that Romano’s weak changeup could lead to him ending up in the bullpen:

    https://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/top-30-prospects-cincinnati-reds/

    He’s young and the pitch just has to be good enough to give Romano a reasonable third offering. But all of the talk last year about him and Stephenson “turning a corner” was premature. They’ve got serious work left to do.

    • Thanks, Nick!

      I think in some ways Romano and Stephenson did turn a corner last year as they started figuring out what it takes to get hitters out. But the league seems to have adjusted to them, as well. And that makes Romano’s changeup and Stephenson’s fastball control even more important.

  5. I thoroughly doubt that “the Reds didn’t have him work on the [change-up] more in the minor leagues.” I can believe that they’ve worked diligently but have not gotten there with it just yet.

    It is very, very difficult to pitch at a major league level. Even half the pitchers who make it to the majors – relievers, generally – never master a third pitch that is effective at that high level. Maybe 150 guys in the world can do it, and probably fewer than half of them are truly good at it.

    I could also believe that breaking balls and changes are harder to throw in very cold weather than in warm weather, although his last start (his worst) was the one warm game that the Reds played at home – the Weiss-Rainey meltdown game.

    Romano has given up 2 runs in each first inning he’s pitched, and has more BBs than Ks, but he’s also had some iffy fielding behind him. We’re gonna want a bigger sample size to evaluate where Romano is right now. If this continues for another 3 starts, then it would probably make sense to have him trade places with BobSteve. Or, God forbid, allow Garrett to start.

    • Good perspective, and we absolutely need more than three starts of data to draw any definitive conclusions. Hopefully his slider and changeup will both look sharper moving forward.

  6. Matt,

    Your opening paragraph seems to be mirror what we’ve seen so far in that Romano seems to run into trouble at the tail end of his start.

    If the velocity is dropping at that point, then it may have less to do with the change up or lack thereof.

    I wouldn’t slate him for the pen just yet. He needs to find that third pitch he has a good feel for. If not the change, perhaps split finger or a cutter/two seamer.

    IIRC, Bailey tried a few different pitches before settling in on his core pitches. Although a brand new pitch should be learned at AAA, perhaps.

  7. Terrific post. Definitely something to watch for tonight (Romano’s 20th major league start) and in his upcoming starts. Castillo showed last night the value of an effective change-up to strike out batters and generally keep them uncertain.

    • Thanks, Steve! Not seeing much from Romano’s changeup tonight, but the slider looks a bit better.

  8. Romano has been pretty consistently blahhhh so far. He is what he is until proven otherwise. Not horrible but not exactly a rising star either…despite throwing hard:

    Career minors #s – 4.31 era, .278 batting average allowed
    Reds #s – 4.75 era, .276 batt avg allowed

    He wants to be a Lance Lynn or modern day Bart Colon that can just throw sinking fastball after sinking fastball but he doesn’t have the movement they have. Lorenzen has some of the same issues but his ball has more movement then Romano’s. Atleast both are groundball pitchers and that’s important in GABP. In my mind…Romano and Finnegan haven’t earned anything and the other guys should get a shot to start if they continue to falter. I don’t know if Romano’s first inning blues are consistent thru his career…but find a way to get really warmed up despite the cold.

    Mahle has looked great til the one big inning, but atleast you can see command out there. Bailey and Castillo are locks. Garrett should be the 4th and that would leave a host of others for the 5th spot.

    • I’m kind of intrigued by lefty Justin Nicolino that Dick WIlliams picked up. He’s a former 2nd round pick and only 26. A career 2.97 era in the minors! A 4.65 era in 200 ip for the Marlins. 2 good starts in Lville. He should be in the mix too if he keeps it going.

  9. Great read and well-written. And yeah, where’s Mario Soto? Fastball/changeup is the hardest combo to hit, forever and always, because it changes the one hardest dimension to hit – front to back (timing or the third dimension, rather than just up/down or side-to-side). Also, I had to laugh at this:

    “Without even looking at the movement metrics on the far right side of the table, you can see how much more English is on Castillo’s changeup just by looking at those swings and misses, especially out of the zone.”

    As I read the z% and the swinging strikes I thought “Castillo isn’t in the zone much more, he just gets way more guys to chase down with movement.” Oh hey, there’s the next line, lol. But yeah, this just makes me want Garrett in there that much more.

    • Thanks, Dave! Glad you enjoyed the post. And I’d love to see Garrett starting too, believe me!

  10. Great article. Forward that to Mack Jenkins. I like Romano.a lot and you have zeroed in on some fixable things.

    He may need to first identify what purpose his change up has. It doesn’t have to be a strike out and many times should not be a strike. Ii itbacset up primarily? Is it a get ahead pitch 0-0 count? . Most times, it’s purpose is to disrupt timing and slow down bat speed for the rollover 6-4-3 DP. The great ones – Soto- it’s their strike out pitch.

    If he struggles another 4 starts, their would be benefit to going back to AAA and cleaning things up. Your data clearly show he doesn’t feel comfortable with throwing his change up…or better yet, Barnhart isn’t.

    • Thank you!

      I agree the changeup doesn’t need to be a swing-and-miss pitch to be effective for Romano. That’s what his slider is for. If he can throw even an average change, that will help his other stuff play up.

  11. Good post and the real reason IMO to fire Price. More than his lineup construction, in-game decisions and the long list already discussed, I think the front office expected him – as a former well regarded pitching Coach- to conduct the development process of those big arms drafted or traded for like BobSteve, Howard, Reed, Finnegan, Lorenzen, etc. They were supposed to be the core of “the Rebuild” opposed to what the Cubs and Astros did with position players and then “buying” the arms needed to win.

    Unfortunately, developing pitchers is a lot harder than position players like Kris Bryant or Carlos Correa. Health has not been kind to the Redlegs, but it is obvious that guys like Romano, Cingrani, Nick Howard, Reed and even with Homer Bailey have not been properly developed at their full potential. Even a promising prospect like Mahle lacks consistency on his breaking stuff. What we saw with the young kids 2 nights ago, just painful.

    Price has to go, but so is the whole pitching coaching staff from top to bottom.

    • Glad you enjoyed the read! I’m hoping we see some big strides from these young pitchers this year.

  12. Cingrani is pitching well. Blake Wood….9 innings so far for Anaheim with 0 runs, 4 hits, 3 walks, 7 ks. He couldn’t pitch to mannequins without walking 6-7 in 9 innings with us?

  13. Great info, Matt. I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but it’s my observation that Romano just won’t go after batters. He nibbles on the corners — mostly the outside corner. That wasn’t the impression I got late last year.

    When he does get ahead of a batter, he won’t put them away. It seems to be an attempt to get them to wave at something just off the corner, or to hope he clips the corner and gets a called strike three. He must improve his control both inside and outside the strike zone to be effective long-term.

    • Thanks, Tom!

      Agree with your observations. Romano is at his best when he’s aggressive in the strike zone. The lack of a putaway pitch is legitimately concerning, though. Strikeouts aren’t everything, but he doesn’t have a reliable swing-and-miss pitch when he’s having trouble with slider command.

  14. Reds killers Thames and Braun back in the lineup tonight for Milwaukee.

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About Matt Wilkes

Growing up just north of Cincinnati, Matt has been a Reds fan for as long as he can remember. As a kid, he was often found leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 and imitating his favorite players (Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns) in the backyard. One of his earliest baseball memories is attending the final night game at Cinergy Field. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in the Dayton area. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

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