DUNEDIN, Fla. — Standing in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse, Jordan Romano spins his off-season between his fingers. It’s a blue slice of plastic about the size of an SD memory card. No bigger than a matchbook they would hand out at a restaurant. He has to be really careful not to lose it.
It’s an inertial sensor — manufactured by Motus — packed with accelerometers and gyroscopes like the ones your smartphone uses to configure its compass app. All winter, Romano’s been stuffing that sensor into a compression sleeve he’s worn over his right arm whenever he’s thrown a baseball. As he pitches, the sensor measures the rotation of his shoulder, the torque on his elbow, and the angular velocity of his forearm to process a quantification of his workload on a scale from zero to 25.
Previously, Romano used subjective guesswork to determine when he needed to work more and when his arm needed a break. He simply trusted his gut and how he was feeling. But as long seasons wore on, Romano’s velocity and stuff typically diminished. He broke down physically. He pitched through pain. He pitched when he probably shouldn’t have.
He’d always endeavour to do a little bit less than his true work capacity when throwing during off-seasons and in between outings, trying to preserve his arm for games. But it wasn’t until this winter that Romano objectively measured how taxing his workload actually was. What he learned surprised him.
“I was definitely throwing too much,” the Markham, Ont., native said. “I feel like every year throughout my career, I’ll have a few months where I’m throwing hard, everything is crisp — and then it’ll kind of fall off for a month. It’s just been too inconsistent. So, my workload is something I really need to track — I need to make sure I know how much I’m throwing. Hopefully, that helps me sustain my stuff all year this year.”
Romano’s found the data so valuable that he plans to continue collecting it throughout the 2020 season. It’s certainly helped him early in Blue Jays camp. In prior years, Romano’s fastball has sat at 90-91-m.p.h. during spring bullpens, increasing to 95-96-m.p.h. in games. This year, Romano was already throwing that 95-96-m.p.h. heater in his bullpens, dialling it up to 98 in competition.
That could partly be due to the reduced stress he put on his arm this off-season, as Romano carefully tracked his workload while throwing at Kinetic Pro Baseball in Tampa, Fla., alongside top prospect Nate Pearson. He’s also started working with weighted balls, utilizing a similar arm care routine to the one that’s helped Pearson maintain his triple-digit fastball.
The velocity’s also aided by the fact Romano added 10 pounds. to his six-foot-four frame this winter, the result of the four-to-five sessions per week he spent in the weight room with Blue Jays strength staff over the winter, plus a focus on eating more in order to gain lean mass.
“This is the hardest I’ve thrown in any camp so far,” Romano said. “I feel like it’s coming out well. My goal is just to sustain that velo throughout the year. I don’t need any more than that. If I do get a little more, it’s a bonus. But I’ve shown success throwing that hard. And I just want to keep that velo.”
Romano worked around a single in an inning of work Saturday, making his third scoreless appearance of spring. He’s faced 11 batters now, striking out five without walking any.
It’s that strike-throwing and his increased velocity that has the Blue Jays so encouraged this spring. And if Romano keeps pitching the way he has, he’ll have a very strong chance to be in Toronto’s bullpen come opening day.
“I’m doing everything I can,” he said. “And if I don’t make it, I think I’ll at least make it a really hard decision on them. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to make them think twice about it.”
Romano’s 2019 was a challenging one. He spent spring training with another organization, after the Texas Rangers traded for him minutes after he was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the Rule 5 Draft, trying to win a big-league bullpen job. He didn’t and was returned to the Blue Jays on the eve of the season, who initially asked him to ramp back up as a starter, which he’d been developing as for years.
But that plan was abandoned after a month of hard work and Romano was shifted back to the bullpen role he’d put out of his mind. He found a groove after a couple of rocky appearances and ended up stringing together 10 straight scoreless outings, striking out 45 per cent of the batters he faced and earning his first big-league call-up in June.
He brought that swing-and-miss stuff to the majors as Romano struck out 11 of the first 19 big-league hitters he faced. The problem was two of the other eight took him deep, including Boston Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez, who hit a 10th-inning, full-count, walk-off shot at Fenway Park off the 40th pitch Romano had thrown in an exhausting relief outing that, in a lot of ways, defined the young reliever’s season. He struck out five batters in that outing — but paid dearly for the one mistake he made.
Romano was optioned to the minors the next day, caught up in a roster crush as the Blue Jays scrambled for pitching. And two weeks later an oblique issue put him out of competition for more than four weeks.
He returned to triple-A Buffalo in August and got back up to the majors later that month. But he wasn’t the same guy. Romano laboured over 10 September appearances, striking out fewer batters and allowing more contact. He gave up runs in each of his final five outings, and seven of his last nine.
Romano had lost a tick off his fastball as the season wore on, averaging 95.3-m.p.h. with the pitch during his first call-up in June and 94.2 in September when he returned. It’s not dramatic, but it’s enough to make a difference. And even though the spin rates and break on his pitches remained consistent or even improved over the season, he felt his stuff was declining as well.
“Physically, I didn’t feel great. But it’s September. Everyone’s banged up. So, I was just trying to get through it,” he says. “Last year was the first year when I had prolonged failure. And that was definitely frustrating for me. I didn’t know how to get out of it. I was trying a lot of things and nothing was really working.”
That included making adjustments to his delivery, tweaking his pitch grips, and everything in between. None of it worked because none of it was the issue. Romano was simply doing too much.
Now, thanks to the biomechanical data that little blue sensor’s been collecting on his arm all winter, Romano has a much better idea of when he’s good to throw, and when he ought to rest instead. And the results so far this spring speak for themselves.
Beyond closer Ken Giles, Toronto’s bullpen is uncertain and unproven, opening a clear lane for a hard-thrower like Romano to earn himself a big-league job. And if he keeps pitching the way he has this spring, he’ll likely be hearing his name announced at Rogers Centre on opening day.
That would be a big moment for the Canadian, right up there with his first big-league call-up last June when he was striking out half the batters he faced. That’s the on-field version of himself Romano wants to be on the field — just one that knows how to work smarter off of it.
“My arm was feeling great, my body was feeling great. And its honestly about just trying to get back to that guy and sustain it,” Romano said. “Because I know all the stuff’s there. If I can have that stuff, and that mentality, I think I can be in the big leagues for a long time and help this team win a lot of games.”