Ricky Romero won’t be named the American League Rookie of the Year tomorrow, but he will garner some votes, and that alone should serve as a measure of vindication for the Blue Jays‘ southpaw. Taken as the sixth overall pick of the 2005 draft, Romero came into this season having received more than his fair share of “first-round bust” criticism, not all of it unfounded. Selected ahead of players such as Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, and Jay Bruce, the 25-year-old Cal State Fullerton product had gone just 16-23, 4.42, with less-than-inspiring K/9, K/BB, and H/9 rates in four minor league seasons. Undaunted, Romero came out and proved his critics wrong. Beginning with an April decision over the Tigers‘ Rick Porcello, a game in which first-round picks took the mound against each other in their respective debuts for the first time in MLB history, Romero was one of the most effective pitchers on the Toronto staff. In 178 innings over 29 starts, Romero went 13-9, with an ERA of 4.30 and 141 strikeouts.
David Laurila: You just finished your fifth professional season, and your first in the big leagues. How would you describe your pro career thus far?
Ricky Romero: It’s definitely been a big-time learning experience, and I’m not just talking about the sport of baseball, but as a person. It’s helped me to mature over the years. It’s helped me to grow up as a person and to put a lot of things into perspective. I spent two years in [Double-A] New Hampshire, which is the place I was the most in my minor league career, and I feel that right there is where I learned a lot. I matured as a pitcher, and I matured as a person off the field. There were definitely some downs there, but at every point through my career, right up to now, I’ve stayed positive. I’ve believed in myself the whole time, and I feel that has carried me a long way.
DL: You’ve been better in the big leagues than you were in the minors. Does that surprise you?
RR: Not one bit, and to tell you the truth, I still feel like I could have done better this year. People who know me, and are close to me, know that I’m a humble person, but I feel like I could have gotten better in different aspects of my game. Obviously, any time you win 13 games in the big leagues, that’s a pretty successful year, but knowing myself, I just want to just keep getting better every year. I’m not satisfied, but I’m also not surprised one bit. I knew what type of pitcher I was, and I was counting on my ability. I was hopeful that on the day I finally made it, it would be for good, and I was fortunate enough to stick here all year.
DL: Is there anyone you can point to and say, “He really helped me to get over the hump?”
RR: I spent a lot of years in the minors, so there were a lot of guys that helped me along the way. Dave LaRoche, in Double-A, I worked with him for two years. And, obviously, Brad Arnsberg helped me out in spring training. They just kept me positive. It was me being positive, and gaining my confidence, more than anything. They always knew that I had a good arm and always knew that I had the stuff to pitch in the big leagues. It was just a matter of time. Arnie [Brad Arnsberg] in spring training just kind of made it a point that this was the type of pitcher that I was going to be. He believed in me, and if he believed in me, I should believe in myself, and the day that I started believing in myself would be the day that my career was going to start turning around. I think that’s the biggest thing that kind of sunk into my mind, that my stuff does play here, and that it was just a matter of taking it out to the mound and being confident.
DL: Arnsberg just left the organization to become the pitching coach in Houston. How much of a negative is that for you?
RR: Any time you lose someone that you’re close with, and get to work with, it’s obviously going to be a little different, but I still feel that we have a good pitching coach in Bruce Walton. He kind of worked under Arnie a little bit, and he knows me, and I actually got to work with him a couple of times this year when Arnie took a leave of absence, early in the year, for his son’s graduation or something. So I was able to work with Pappy and talk to him a lot during the year, and he helped me out too. He’s a very knowledgeable guy, in pitching, and I couldn’t any happier for him.
DL: J.P. Ricciardi has also left the organization. Is that meaningful to you?
RR: Well, he’s obviously the guy who drafted me, and he’s the guy who, from the beginning, has stuck with me. When I made it up, I think he was really, really happy for me. Throughout the year, I had talks with him, and he said he was a firm believer in me, and as a player that made me feel really comfortable, even through the downs. He knows more than anyone the downs that I had. He never lost faith in me, and for that I have to thank him a lot. This is obviously a business, and I wish him the best.
DL: The developmental gains you’ve mentioned are all related to the mental part of the game. Have you made any mechanical adjustments?
RR: No, not really. I feel like I’ve always had a good arm, and a lot of the negative stuff came from people saying that I had lost some velocity, but to tell you the truth, every time I’d look at my chart, in both the minors and in the big leagues, my velocity was always 90, 92, 93. In the big leagues, it was 94-95 at times. I’ve always had a good arm, mechanically, it was more just repeating my delivery. That was the biggest thing, and to this day, I still feel that I don’t repeat as well as, like, a Roy Halladay. Obviously, he’s Roy Halladay, you know, and those are the kind of shoes I want to be in someday, as my career goes on and on. I want to be able to repeat my delivery, I want to look smooth, and I want to have the same arm angle every time. I feel that sometimes I lack that, but with experience, I think I’ll get better. But, other than that, like I said, it was just that little mechanical thing that Arnie brought up in spring training, staying in a straight line type of deal, and that helped me a lot.
DL: Left-handed hitters had a lot of success against you this year. Is that a concern?
RR: Yeah, most definitely. I feel that’s a big adjustment, and…it’s funny, because it’s not as easy as “I’m left-handed and they’re left-handed, so….” There are some really, really good left-handed hitters up here in the big leagues, and our division is no joke. Not that that’s an excuse, but every time I was out there, I was trying to get those guys out, and I’ll just continue to work on it. I think I’ll be fine, and I’m not too worried about it.
DL: What do you need to do differently to improve your numbers against left-handed hitters?
RR: I did it a little later in the year, and I think it’s pitching inside more to lefties. I felt like I did a good job with righties, pitching inside, and my changeup was really successful when I’d go down and away to righties. But I think that the biggest thing for me, whether it was against righties or lefties, was that when I got hit, it was when I was behind in the count. At times, that was my biggest nemesis, when I fell behind 2-0, 3-0, 3-1, and when you get put in those situations against big league hitters, they’re going to hit you no matter what. So, I think that I just need to do a better job of pitching inside to lefties, and trying to keep them off balance. Along with not working behind in the count, those are the biggest things.
DL: You had two very good games against the Phillies this year, and their lineup features some outstanding left-handed hitters.
RR: Yeah, guys like Ryan Howard, Raul Ibañez, Chase Utley, they’re good hitters, and in those games I kept them off balance. I threw a lot of off-speed pitches, and that’s another thing. If I can be consistent throwing curveballs, going off-speed to lefties, and pitching inside and then going down and away, it makes me that much better. It’s all about consistency for me; it’s all about throwing strikes, and once I get ahead in the count, 0-1, 0-2, I feel that I’m as good as anyone.
DL: The American League Rookie of the Year will be named in a few days. Who gets your vote?
RR: Me. No, just kidding. I don’t know, but I think Rick Porcello probably should win it. At 20 years old, or 21, to do what he did-even if you take the numbers out, and look at the performances he had, he had a big performance in that last game that they played in. And to win 14 games at his age, it was pretty special to do that. It’s not easy to go up there and do that against hitters in the big leagues. So, if I had a vote, other than me, obviously, it would definitely be him. It would definitely be him. We faced each other in our first game, and to see him mature over the year, including when we faced each other a second time, and listening to guys talk about his stuff, he’s just pretty special.
DL: When you and Porcello squared off on April 9, did you think the two of you would be getting Rookie of the Year consideration at the end of the season?
RR: You know what? Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be up for the Rookie of the Year. I understand that I probably won’t win it, but all I want is that credit, and hopefully some votes. I feel that I did a good enough job, in the division that I’m in, to at least receive some votes. I just want to get recognized for what I did, you know. Whoever wins it, I’m sure that they’re really, really deserving, but I just kind of want to get the recognition that I feel I deserve. If it happens, it happens, but if it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world for me. I’m not a personal awards guy. To me, the biggest thing is that the day I win a World Series, that’s going to be the best accomplishment in my career. Other than that, all of the awards, and all that type of stuff, aren’t a big deal.
DL: Because of your struggles in the minor leagues, a lot of people had begun to doubt you. Did you prove to everybody this year that you’re a quality big league pitcher?
RR: Definitely not. It was just a step in the right direction; I still feel like I have a lot bigger job to take care of. Because I had one good year, I’m not guaranteed that I’ll continue to do well the next five years. I certainly don’t look at it like that. Like I said before, I consider myself a really, really humble person. I’m the type of person who likes to get better, and wants to get better, and having a guy like Roy Halladay around was big for me. Just listening to him talk, and watching the way he goes about his business, and watching him work-I’ve always said there’s a reason why he’s so good, and that’s because there’s no one who busts his butt more than that guy. I’m talking about off the baseball diamond, because he works his tail off in the weight room, and watching video, and everything. He deserves every bit of success that goes on with him, because he just works harder. And that’s the way I am. I kind of look at it like that. I don’t feel that I have to prove anything to anyone, but I owe it to myself, and to my family. That’s the reason I play the game, for them. I just want to continue to have success, and we’ll go from there.
DL: Being the sixth overall pick in the year you were drafted, did you put a lot of pressure on yourself?
RR: I don’t know about pressure, it was more just… well, I guess maybe a little bit. When I couldn’t get out of Double-A, that was the biggest thing. I kind of took a step back the last year that I was there, and it kind of made me realize a lot of things. I kind of sat down and really thought about what kind of person I was, and what kind of person I want to become, both on and off the field. I felt that I kind of let stuff happen as time went on, and didn’t try to push it, push it, like I had been. I didn’t try to push myself over the limit. The day I let things happen, and just come to me, is when everything kind of turned around.
DL: Any final thoughts?
RR: No, not really. Like I’ve said throughout this interview, I’m a humble person, and I love to work, and I love to win. When I’m out there for my team, I’ll do whatever it takes to win. As long as our team is winning and successful, I’m happy. I’m not an “I”-type guy. It’s not about me. I’m a humble guy who likes to fly under the radar and just do my job as well as possible. If I do that, I think I can help my team win. It’s not all about me; it’s about the Blue Jays.
Editor’s note: Romero will be among the featured guests at the Granite State Baseball Dinner in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Saturday November 21. Among the other guests appearing at this charity event, which includes a silent auction and autograph session, will be Chris Carpenter, Sam Fuld, Jesse Litsch, Jim Rice, Marc Rzepczynski, and Bob Stanley. For more information go to nhfishercats.com