DUNEDIN, FLA. - For most pitchers, spring training is about getting ready. Ricky Romero isn’t most pitchers. For Romero, spring training is about getting better.
In 2009, Romero reinvented his delivery in spring training and that improvement allowed him to make the Blue Jays rotation for the first time.
In both 2010 and 2011, Romero focused on the command of all his pitches, most notably his fastball command, resulting in a dramatic reduction in his rates of both hits and walks in both seasons.
Now, in 2012, Romero has several projects on the go. One is to refine his cutter so that it becomes a weapon he can rely on throwing to both sides of the plate. The other is to make his curve ball a more potent weapon. If he is able to accomplish both goals, then he will very likely take care of a third challenge: how to be more effective against lefthanded hitters.
If there is a hole in Romero’s game, it is his curious inability to dominate lefthanded hitters the way he does righthanders. In most cases, lefthanded pitchers do better against lefty hitters than they do against righties. But not in Romero’s case.
In 639 plate appearances by righthanded hitters in 2011, Romero limited them to a .194 batting average, a .263 on-base percentage, a .325 slugging percentage and a .589 OPS. That’s the good news. The bad news is that in 278 plate appearances against lefthanded hitters, he gave up a batting average of .269, on OBP of .372, a slug percentage of .462 and an OPS of .834.
“Obviously the numbers don’t lie and it’s something I want to get better at,” he said Tuesday after pitching two scoreless innings in Toronto’s 7-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.
“Every year I feel like you’ve got to get better at something and I feel that’s one of the parts of my game where I want to continue to get better and have a different weapon.”
Romero’s cutter has been an effective weapon against righthanders but he thinks it could be a weapon against lefties, as well.
“I haven’t really had much chance to work on it in games yet but in the bullpen it’s been getting better,” he said. “I’ve gotten a good feel for the cutter inside to a righty, now it’s just a matter of frontdooring it to the lefties.”
Manager John Farrell thinks Romero could solve his difficulties against lefty hitters by improving his curveball to broaden the strike zone for those hitters.
“His cutter and his changeup, to be able to spread the plate with velocity and action in two different directions, presents a lot of challenges for a righthanded hitter,” said Farrell.
“As his curveball becomes more consistent, both for a strike and putaway, something he can sweep away from a lefthanded hitter, I think you’ll see those numbers come back into more balance. He’s likely to use his changeup more frequently against a righthander than he would a lefthander.”
Against lefties, Romero needs something to stop them from dialing in on his sinker, down and away.
“Anytime you can create depth with a breaking ball going away from a lefthander, that’s the pitch that’s going to allow him to slow them down,” said Farrell. “Typically, they’ll look out over the plate against him because they know they’re probably going to get something hard, away.”
In Tuesday’s two-inning stint, Romero stuck mainly to fastballs. He faced seven hitters and got six groundball outs to go with a double by Phils’ first baseman Ty Wigginton.
Wigginton’s leadoff double in the second inning forced Romero to bear down to get out of a jam. Wigginton moved to third on a groundout by John Mayberry, Jr., then Romero got another groundout to drawn-in second baseman Kelly Johnson that kept Wigginton at third. Hector Luna then bounced one back to Romero to get out of the inning.
“That’s when you slow the game down and try not to do too much,” said Romero. “You let your defence work and try to keep the ball on the infield, which is important in that situation. You do that kind of stuff and slow it down and everything usually works out.”
Romero is an unabashed positive thinker, so he has totally bought into the notion of this Blue Jay team as a contender. It’s an opinion that is shared throughout the room.
“I see a lot of determination this year,” he said. “The vibe in this clubhouse is that we’re all ready to take it to that next level. We understand that we have a lot of work to do but when you see the confidence in the way we carry ourselves, it’s the best I’ve ever seen it. I think we’re ready to do some good things. This team has the right mindset.”
He was talking about the Blue Jays as a unit, but he could have been describing the forces that guide his own development. They’re one and the same.