The 2017 and 2018 seasons are supposed to be about sorting the roster, especially the pitching staff. After two years of washed-up veterans and future Korean league players, the Reds are finally starting pitchers who might improve the team’s fortunes. But, as is usually the case, these young hurlers have taken us on a bumpy ride.
Development is rocky. Ask Greg Maddux and Johnny Cueto who both received a beating from MLB hitters upon arrival for over a year, only to eventually excel at their craft. But plenty of other pitchers never recover from those early failures.
Brandon Finnegan has already been found wanting, cast aside after injuries zapped his velocity and compounded his control problems. He will ply his trade from the bullpen now, the first real casualty of ineffectiveness in the race to secure rotation spots.
We now have a reasonable amount of data on several rotation candidates, and it’s helpful to take stock of where they are as they reach certain milestones.
Sal Romano has started 32 MLB games, the equivalent of a full season. That’s more starts than Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed combined, 11 more than Michael Lorenzen and 18 more than Amir Garrett. He’s not a finished product by any means, but we have more data on him at the MLB level than most of his peers. It’s a good time to check in on Big Sal’s development.
In those 32 starts, Romano has posted an ERA of 4.92, FIP of 4.66, and SIERA of 4.80. He’s certainly had some promising stretches, but overall, he’s struggled to get outs at the Major League level.
That’s not surprising. He’s just 24 years old facing the best hitters on the planet. Even with the rough ERA, Romano has some things going for him that we shouldn’t overlook.
Romano has an excellent slider. When opposing hitters swing at it, they miss over 36% of the time, and when they put it in play, they hit groundballs over 61% of the time. Romano’s slider has a .196 batting average against, and he’s only let up 2 homeruns in his career on the pitch. It’s the crown jewel of his arsenal, and when he has it working, Romano gets much tougher to hit.
That slider helps Romano produce a bunch of groundballs overall. At 47.8% for his career, his groundball percentage is above league average, and when you pitch in the launching pad that is Great American Ball Park, you better keep as many balls on the dirt as possible. His ability to induce grounders also gets him some double plays, which is always nice, especially because he allows a lot of baserunners.
However, he needs to improve quite a bit to remain in the MLB rotation. First, Romano throws mainly two pitches: a fastball and the slider. He uses a changeup about 7% of the time, but hitters have rocked the pitch, batting .361 against it and slugging .583.
Starters typically need more than two pitches to succeed, and as of right now, Romano does not have a viable third pitch.
This reality has caused several problems. First, Romano doesn’t strikeout many batters, posting a strikeout percentage that is well below the average for National League starters. Guys can make that work if they don’t walk many people, but Romano also has a below-average walk rate. Almost every pitcher with with Romano’s K% and BB% has an unsightly ERA like Romano’s current one.
With only two pitches, Romano doesn’t get that many swings and misses. Either he needs to strikeout more batters or lower his walk percentage substantially. Romano was never a strikeout artist in the minor leagues, so it’s more likely that the more drastic change comes from walking fewer batters. At the same time, he has shown better strikeout capabilities in his last two starts.
Also concerning is that Romano lets up a lot of hits, over one an inning. Guys who get groundballs tend to let up more hits, but they are often singles, limiting the damage they cause. Romano’s current 1.47 WHIP in the Majors is consistent with his minor league career where batters had a BABIP of at least .318 in four of his five seasons.
Unfortunately, A lot of the contact against him this season has been hit hard. Romano ranks 280th out of 354 in xSLG, which predicts what a pitcher’s slugging percentage should be based on batted ball data. The hard contact has led to more homeruns in 2018 and with all those baserunners, it’s no wonder Romano’s ERA is almost 5 and a half.
Where does this leave Romano?
That’s a tough question to answer about a 24-year-old. I think Eric Longenhagen hit the nail on the head before the 2017 season when he suggested that Romano was either a back-end starter or dominant reliever.
He could always take a big jump forward with the changeup, but unless he does, Romano’s ceiling is probably a 4th or 5th starter. With his fastball/slider combination, he could also overwhelm hitters in shorter stints out of the bullpen with increased velocity.
Even if Romano improves, the Reds should be using 2018 to figure out whether they have better options. If they do, it would allow Romano to become an important part of the bullpen. If not, Romano settles in to his back-end starter role. Those are the most likely options right now, and for a guy drafted in the 23rd round, that’s really good.