DUNEDIN, Fla. — There is a fairly nondescript piece of 8 ½ by 11 paper buried deep in Ricky Romero’s locker. It is folded in half and partially crumpled at the sides. And it may hold the key to his season.
Standing in the clubhouse with a towel around his neck after his inning and a third of work Tuesday afternoon — in what would eventually be an 8-4 Blue Jays loss to the Minnesota Twins — Romero reaches into his locker and produces the sheet. It’s filled with tables; numbers run up and down the cells, some of which are coloured red, some blue. The numbers are all important, but the only ones Romero cares about are the ones under the column labeled ‘Sinker’, the pitch that, for one reason or another, he suddenly stopped throwing in 2012.
The story the paper tells reads like this: In 2011, Romero threw his sinker 26 per cent of the time to left-handers and 21 per cent of the time to right-handers. But in 2012 those numbers fell to 8 per cent for lefties and 13 per cent to righties as he tried to rely more often on his cut fastball and off-speed pitches. Close friend and rotation-mate Brandon Morrow was playing around on the website BrooksBaseball.net this winter when he noticed the discrepancy in Romero’s numbers. He printed the tables out and gave it to Romero as soon as he arrived in Dunedin for Spring Training.
“I was amazed by it. Looking at those numbers — they were pretty crazy,” Romero said as Morrow lingered nearby. “It’s one of those things where you don’t realize what happened until after the damage is done.”
Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker had noticed it, too.
“I’ve done a little research myself,” Walker said with a grin when Morrow’s fact-finding was mentioned to him. “It’s definitely something we’re paying attention to. It’s such a key pitch.”
Walker, who was the Blue Jays bullpen coach last season, said he noticed Romero using the sinker less and less throughout the course of 2012. Of course, someone else was pitching coach and Walker’s focus was in the bullpen. Now that he’s in charge of the rotation, Walker has slightly tweaked the mechanics of Romero’s delivery and instructed the Blue Jays’ No. 5 starter to spend his entire camp working on re-establishing the pitch.
“I think he might have struggled with it a little early on and then got away from it,” Walker said. “He really got away from himself as a pitcher.”
The sinker is actually a twist on Romero’s more traditional four-seam fastball. He grips the ball across just two seams which causes it to dive in the zone and produce weak, groundball contact. The idea is to throw it down and away against right-handed batters and towards the inside of the plate against left-handers, in order to open up the rest of the strike zone for Romero to attack with his fastball and off-speed pitches.
But Romero has found the sinker can also cut at times when he throws it, which has led to some problems.
“Sometimes it’s just moving all over the place, it can be hard to control,” Romero said. “But it’s just a matter of trusting that the thing can move when I’m on top of it.”
Romero speculated that his lack of confidence in the control of the pitch could be the reason he threw it less in 2012, although he wasn’t entirely sure why he stopped throwing it. In a season when Romero led the American League with 105 walks, the hesitancy to throw a pitch he couldn’t locate is understandable. The solution to that problem, Walker and Romero have decided, is to throw nothing but the sinker. Aside from his changeup, you should be surprised if you see him throw anything else before April — results be damned.
“If I get hit, I get hit. I’m working on that pitch,” Romero said, defiantly. “It’s a key pitch for me.”
So how did the experiment go on Tuesday? Well, the results were mixed. Romero got a fly out to right field and a pop out to the catcher with the sinker in the first inning, but he also gave up a line-drive single to left-centre field with it to lead off the second. Two batters later he fell behind Twins right fielder Joe Benson — who has just three major league at-bats — and left an 87 mph sinker up over the heart of the plate. Benson easily cleared the left field fence as Romero jumped off the mound and pounded his fist into his glove. He then seemed to lose his grasp on the pitch’s control, walking the next batter on five pitches before Walker removed him from the game because he had already surpassed his strict 35-pitch limit.
“Aside from the home run, I thought he threw the ball really well today,” Walker said. “He’s in a good place. His delivery looks sound. I think it’s going to continue through the spring.
In all, Romero threw 36 pitches, 17 for strikes. He’ll be limited to 35 pitches again for his next outing as the Blue Jays coaching staff slowly builds him up over the long training camp.
Romero is also trying to ignore the speed of his pitches in these early days of spring. In the past, he would come into camp and try to throw everything as hard as he could from day one. But now, as a somewhat wiser 28-year-old, Romero is hardly concerned about his velocity, which hovered in the 87-89 mph range Tuesday afternoon.
“I didn’t even pay attention to it,” Romero said of the radar gun. “This ain’t my first spring training.”
No, it certainly is not. But it is the first attempt to correct whatever problems ailed Romero throughout a disastrous 2012 season when his ERA jumped by 2.85 points from 2011 and he set career-highs in hits, walks and earned runs. And the answer might be printed on an ordinary sheet of paper sitting idly in Romero’s locker.