Change-up could determine Blue Jays’ Jordan Romano’s pitching path

Toronto Blue Jays right-handed pitcher Jordan Romano was a starter for the Class-A Lansing Lugnuts in 2016. (Photo credit: Jackson Management Group)

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Jordan Romano’s a big guy with a mid-90s fastball and a hard slider. He throws strikes, he doesn’t give up home runs, and he absolutely dominates right-handed hitters. A lot of baseball people look at that and say Romano’s destined to be a reliever. The Toronto Blue Jays see it differently.

Over the last two seasons, the organization has tasked Romano with developing a change-up, a pitch they think could solve the 24-year-old’s struggles against left-handed hitters and turn him into an effective starting pitcher. Toronto’s thinking is that Romano’s ability to pitch out of the bullpen will always be there. But what if there is some untapped potential in him as a starter?

“I get it. You look at his body, his stuff, his presence, his delivery — and it looks like a reliever,” says John Schneider, Romano’s manager this season with the Dunedin Blue Jays. “But when you have the kind of stuff that he does, and you can get a starter’s body of work out of an arm like that — that’s pretty hard to find.”

A bit of background: Romano — who’s from Markham, Ont. — was selected in the 10th round of the 2014 draft by the Blue Jays after a strong season as Oral Roberts University’s closer. Romano was a max-effort, fastball-slider reliever in those days, and the Blue Jays kept him in that role when he debuted in rookie ball. Romano put up a 1.93 ERA over 28 strong innings out of the bullpen that year before missing all of 2015 due to Tommy John surgery.

When he returned from surgery in 2016, Romano transitioned to the rotation and began building that change-up at mid-A Lansing, where he put up a 2.11 ERA over 14 starts and one relief appearance. He continued the process this year, making 26 starts for Dunedin, nearly doubling his inning total from 2016 and finishing the year with a 3.39 ERA. Not bad for a bullpen guy.

“There’s no question he’s got a great arm,” Schneider says. “But I think he’s learning he can back off a little bit, not try to overthrow everything, and really hit his spots and have success. I think he’s learning he can pitch a little bit and not have to be as max effort as he has been in the past.”

Romano’s change-up is by no means a finished product but it is steadily improving. While he mainly threw it just for the sake of throwing it when he was in Lansing (his coaches instructed him to use it at least 10 times a game), the right-hander’s been throwing it with much more purpose in 2017, using it early in counts to get weak contact or plant a seed of doubt in the mind of a hitter sitting dead red.

It’s also helped him present a new look to left-handed hitters, who have had more success against Romano than right-handers over his career.

“It’s definitely night and day from when I was in Lansing,” Romano says. “It wasn’t much of a pitch at all last year. I was just throwing it out there to meet the quota. But now I’m getting a few guys out with it. Guys are rolling over it. It’s a pitch that’s taken a little longer than I’d like to come around. But I’m really starting to see it get better and better.”

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Learning a new pitch in your early 20s is a frustrating process, especially one as difficult to master as a change-up. One of the hardest parts is creating depth to the pitch, so that it drops as it approaches the plate, and doesn’t simply sit out on a tee. The best way to improve it is to throw it over and over and over again. But that presents another problem.

Throwing a still-developing pitch in games is a good way to get that pitch hit. Until you have a great handle on it, you’re bound to leave it over the plate now and again. And while the minor leagues are primarily for development, results still matter. If Romano wants to continue to progress up Toronto’s system, he has to get outs. But he also has to develop that third pitch.

“It’s that balancing act between development and winning,” Schneider says. “Especially for him because he’s a super competitive guy. We’ve been harping on the change-up and it’s a work in progress for him. The thing is, he can wiggle out of jams with his heater and slider because they’re just that good.”

With a plus fastball and slider, it must be tempting for Romano to lean on his two best pitches with runners on base. Why wouldn’t it be? Hitters — right-handers especially — have a hard time protecting against Romano’s 93-95 mph fastball while not swinging through the power slider he throws behind it. But he also knows he’ll need that change-up if he wants to continue as a starter.

“Getting through the lineup once or twice, you can be fine with a fastball and slider,” Romano says. “But once that lineup turns over a third time, you really need that third pitch to keep them off balance. The more I start and pitch at higher levels, the more I’m learning how important that is.”

Another thing Romano’s learned how to do since becoming a starter is varying his fastball velocity throughout an outing. There were times this summer when Romano would throw his fastball between 90 and 97 mph over the course of a start, easing up on the gas pedal when he wants to hone in on location, and dialling up the velocity when he’s ahead in the count.

He’ll do something similar with his slider, throwing a slower version in the mid-80’s with more depth to it and a harder one in the high-80’s that spins much tighter. The slower slider can be flipped into the zone for strikes early in counts. The harder one puts batters away with two strikes.

That variance has helped Romano avoid hard contact and is part of the reason why he’s allowed only five home runs in 210.2 innings over the last two seasons. The lack of long balls is particularly impressive because Romano pounds the zone, often throwing well over 60 per cent of his pitches for strikes.

Combine all that with the fact Romano has struck out exactly a batter an inning over the last two seasons, and you begin to see why the Blue Jays feel he has such upside as a starter. The option to relieve will always be there for Romano. And scouts will likely still point to it when they watch him on the mound. But if he can refine that change-up, Romano thinks he’s got a pretty good chance as a starter. No matter what the scouting reports say.

“Oh yeah, I read some of the reports,” Romano says. “They all say, ‘oh, he profiles as a reliever.’ And that’s fine. But I’m going to do my best to prove them wrong. I want to start and I want to do it as long as I can.”