Tuesday’s top pitching performance (and the best start of the year so far in the American League) belongs to Toronto’s Ricky Romero. Romero took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Chicago White Sox before surrendering a home run to Alex Rios, losing the no-no and the shutout with one swing of the bat. Romero finished with eight strong innings, allowing two runs on the one hit while striking out 12 batters.
Needless to say, Romero has jumped out to a fast start. The lefty, owned in 15% of ESPN.com fantasy leagues, has thrown 15 innings over two starts, allowing a total six hits and four walks while striking out a league-high 16. In his start on Tuesday against the White Sox, Romero induced a total of 21 swinging strikes. To put that in perspective, last year’s strikeout king Justin Verlander had more than 20 swinging strikes in a start… Once. The most swing and misses induced by AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, who finished second in strikeouts to Verlander last year, was 17.
While he’s never been a strikeout pitcher per se, Romero has exhibited the ability to miss his share of bats. Last year, he whiffed 7.1 hitters per nine, which placed him just ahead of a league average starter. While that isn’t enough to get most owners to sit up and take notice, it was a better rate than he posted in his minor league career where in 81 starts covering five seasons, he owned a strikeout rate of 7.0 K/9. Not many pitchers improve on their strikeout rate (even slightly) when making the jump to the bigs, so it’s impressive that Romero accomplished this feat.
Despite holding his own when it came to strikeouts, the Blue Jays number one pick in the 2005 draft failed to make a positive fantasy impact last season despite posting a 4.30 ERA, because he allowed far too many baserunners. His unsightly 1.52 WHIP was the result of opponents hitting .284 against him, including a .335 BABIP which was the highest rate in the league. Plus, his walk rate of 4.0 BB/9 placed him 29th out of 30 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title (just ahead of AJ Burnett’s 4.2 BB/9). While Romero’s FIP of 4.33 almost exactly matched his ERA from 2009, his lofty BABIP just had to come down, making him a candidate for improvement. However, any improvement would be slight, as his control issues would continue to damper expectations.
Control-wise, he’s off to a good start in 2010, allowing the four free passes in his first two starts. The fact he’s limited his walks is a good sign, but given his track record which includes a minor league walk rate of 3.8 BB/9, I doubt he can maintain his current pace. Still, any improvement is welcome and if he can somehow shave 0.5 BB/9 off his rate, combined with the expected lower BABIP, we’d be looking at a starter who would easily outperform his PECOTA projection of a 1.57 WHIP. If he could push his WHIP to below a 1.4, that would be outstanding. It would also be something he's accomplished only once in his career for a full season, when he had a 1.22 WHIP in 2006 while splitting time between High-A and Double-A.
One thing to really like about Romero is he’s always been a ground ball pitcher. Last summer, a whopping 65 percent of all batted balls against him were on the ground. Prior to that, he induced worm-burners roughly 62 percent of the time between Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Syracuse in 2008. And in his two starts this year, opposing hitters have put the ball in play against Romero 39 times, with 22 of those staying on the ground. In his tour de force on Tuesday, 10 of his 13 batted balls in play were grounders.
The combination of ground balls and strikeouts along with the potential for a lower WHIP are intriguing enough that I'd grab him for a couple of starts. But I wouldn't be afraid to dump him back in the waiver pile when his command disappears.