An underappreciated yet critical aspect to being a high-leverage MLB reliever is doing some really weird stuff on the mound. Think Craig Kimbrel’s pre-pitch pose. Randy Choate pulling on his pant legs between pitches. Or essentially everything Jose Valverde did.
You might say these quirks and mannerisms are absurd and unnecessary. You would be wrong. They’re super necessary. But not only for our entertainment.
The mental aspect of relief pitching is just as important as the physical. Every tendency and beat is part of a careful concentration routine intended to clear the mind, settle the heart rate and prepare the body to deliver the next pitch with maximum effectiveness and conviction. They aren’t ticks — they’re cues.
Or you’ve watched him perform a pre-pitch squat before he comes set and delivers.
Or you’ve seen the 27-year-old straight-up talking to himself on the mound.
Romano never did any of this stuff when he was a starter. Maybe he’d mutter something under his breath here and there. But now that he’s facing high-pressure situations as a reliever, he’s finding a lot more things to say.
All that talking is partly about blocking out any negative thoughts, partly about firing himself up to attack with his next pitch. The wiggle and the squat are purposeful, too. Romano picked up the latter one from watching teammate Ken Giles, who has a pair of squats in his methodical delivery — one before he gets the catcher’s sign and one after.
“I really feel like when I go down into that squat position and come back up, that’s me being ready to throw. It separates each pitch from one another. It really helps me lock in that pitch,” Romano says. “That’s something I wanted to be better at this year — making each individual pitch and not thinking about the last one as much.”
It’s all part of the more focused and dialled-in Romano Blue Jays fans — and even teammates like Bo Bichette — have seen this season. One who’s overhauled both his physical and mental approach to the game, pitched his way into the club’s eighth-inning set-up role and looked like a closer waiting for an opportunity.
“He’s a beast, man,” Bichette says. “The way he came to summer camp was unreal. His mentality — you could see it in his eyes. You could see it in the way he went about his business. I think that he’s going to be good for a long time.”
So far this season, Romano’s allowed neither a run nor a hit in seven appearances — all of them in the late innings with nothing greater than a three-run lead and nothing less than a tie. He’s struck out 10 of the 24 batters he’s faced. Of the remaining 14, three have walked, three have flied out and eight have grounded out. Seventy-five per cent of the time, Romano’s getting a strikeout or a groundball, which is about as good as relief pitching gets.
He’s doing it with a fastball-slider mix he’s throwing firmer than ever before — the heater up to an average of 96.4-mph from 94.6 last season and the breaking ball now coming out at 88.3 compared to last year’s 84.7. He’s gone as high as 99 with the fastball and he’s even broken off the odd 90-mph slider, like this one he started a Ronald Acuna Jr. plate appearance with last week.
That’s the physical side. The mental side is an aggressive approach that’s seen Romano constantly on the attack, going right after hitters and challenging them to catch up to his stuff. Acuna Jr. eventually worked that count full, which is when Romano came out of his squat, reached back with mean intentions, and blew a fastball by one of MLB’s best hitters in a slider count.
“You know, I’ve played with Jordan a long time,” says Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen. “And you can just tell he’s evolving mentally on how he’s going to attack. He’s just a different dude. I think he understands himself better now. Obviously, he’s performing and he’s been spectacular. But I think the mentality that he has coming into it — he’s a different guy. It’s a scary dude out there right now.”
Of course, it’s taken a while to get here. Drafted as a college closer, Romano started his professional career in relief, sat out for 21 months due to Tommy John surgery, then spent three full seasons trying to develop a changeup and reach the majors as a starter. He returned to relief work in 2019 during an unsuccessful Rule 5 audition with the Texas Rangers, who couldn’t find room for him in their bullpen at the end of spring training. He then went back to a starting role with the Blue Jays for a spell, before he was deviated once again to relief full time.
All that fluctuation made his transition to the bullpen less than seamless. He struggled to maintain his velocity and effectiveness as 2019 wore on — and his results suffered in turn. Pitching hurt with diminished stuff in September, he allowed nine earned runs over 7.1 innings. It’s why he spent the offseason adding 10 pounds of muscle, modifying his slider and utilizing biomechanical data to better manage his workload.
It’s also why controlling his fatigue going forward will be key for the Blue Jays as they try to continue fostering Romano’s breakout. He’s pitched in over half the team’s games to this point — partly because he’s been so good, partly because essentially the entire Blue Jays season has been played within leverage. But with Toronto scheduled to play 47 times over the next 48 days, it stands to reason that the club will have to ease up a bit on that usage.
It will be difficult, considering how well he’s performing. But Romano’s improvements have been such a revelation — and his arm suddenly looks like such an important one for the club’s future — that the Blue Jays ought to resist the temptation to over-deploy him. Lest his effectiveness diminish again as stress accumulates.
“Last year definitely didn’t go how I wanted it. I kind of used it as fuel,” Romano says. “After the season was done, I looked at pretty much all the numbers — where I got hit the hardest, what pitches I had the most success with. And I came up with a plan.”
What you’re seeing now is the result of that plan and the eight month’s hard work that followed. It’s the product of all the Rapsodo sessions and grip tinkering that gave Romano a pair of sliders — one with less break he can locate in the zone for called strikes and one with more downward action he’ll use to generate whiffs.
It’s the added juice behind his fastball after working not necessarily harder, but smarter, in the gym last winter. It’s the new mental approach he’s developed through reading about sports psychology and discussing what goes through his head on the mound with Blue Jays mental performance coach Jimmy VanOstrand.
And, yes, it’s the wiggling while looking in for a sign. It’s the squat. It’s the talking to himself. Some of it will be weird, some of it will appear unnecessary. But it’s all part of it. And if it keeps working as well as it has, you might be seeing it in the ninth inning before long.
“I want to be a high leverage guy. I like pitching with guys on base, when the game’s on the line,” Romano said. “And, ultimately, down the road, I want to prove myself — I do want to be a closer in the future. That is one of my goals. But, right now, wherever they need me to be — I’ll pitch.”