Romo is down; It becomes okay to worry (a little)
Relief pitcher extraordinaire Sergio Romo was placed on the DL today, according to the San Jose Mercury News. The problem is inflammation in his throwing elbow, a serious problem for any pitcher but I can’t help but fear the worst for Romo.
Sergio Romo has been the best relief pitcher for the Giants the last three years, and though my opinion is certainly biased because he’s been my favorite player since then, I think every Giants fan recognizes his outstanding value.
This year, he has been so good it’s ridiculous—literally historically great. After serving quite well as the primary set-up man for Brian Wilson last year, Romo has assumed a smaller role this season, pitching only 37.2 innings in 53 games. Many fans have been frustrated with Bochy for relegating Romo to something of a right-handed specialist. After all, he has the best numbers of any Giants reliever and displays an above-average ability to get lefties out (lefties bat .237 against him, righties .118).
Looking at this table, it is clear that they have a point: Romo has the highest strikeout rate, lowest walk rate, and lowest opponent’s batting average of all regular relievers. According to the nerd-friendly, all-in-one statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR), he has been more than twice as valuable to the Giants as Wilson in terms of games won, which is pretty astounding when you consider that WAR is accumulative, as opposed to a rate statistic like batting average. To put it another way, if Romo had thrown as much as Wilson this year—an extra 16 innings pitched—Microsoft Calculator estimates that he would be worth 2.28 WAR, compared to Wilson’s measly 0.7. (Romo’s value lies not only in pitching, but in beard maintenance as well. He demonstrates panache and inventiveness with his frequent stylistic changes, whereas Wilson’s face fur has for a while now been stagnant in a look reminiscent of Tom Hanks near the end of his stay on the island in Cast Away.)
Despite Romo’s tremendous value, I actually liked Bochy’s limited use of him this season. Romo pitched a career-high 62 innings last season, and though his performance did not decline late in the regular season (it actually improved by a lot), he did falter in the postseason. Of course, he only pitched 3.2 innings in the playoffs last year, so his poor performance could very likely be nothing other than statistical noise in a small sample size. But there remains the possibility that Bochy knew or thought that Romo suffered from fatigue in the playoffs and decided to use him more sparingly this year. This strategy came with little downside: the appearances that could have gone to Romo went instead to another, still very good, reliever. Also, fewer appearances for Romo mean fewer opportunities for him get injured.
Of course, that is true for all pitchers, so what makes Romo so special? Fans of the team will know that Romo succeeds because of his wicked slider, deceptive in its late right-to-left movement (it is this purely horizontal break that echoes a frisbee, and sometimes you will hear Giants announcer Mike Krukow describe it as a “frisbee slider”). The filthy movement and Romo’s pinpoint control of the pitch means a quick and certain demise for right-handed hitters, who can’t lay off when Romo makes it seem like a fastball on the outside corner. Perhaps because he has faced so many more righties than lefties this year, Romo’s use of the slider has gone way up…
But the slider is (like everything else ever) a double-edged sword, a very stressful pitch to throw, especially on the elbow. As Eno Sarris points out in this excellent article, pitchers who throw more than 40% sliders get injured more often than other pitchers and have to undergo Tommy John surgery much more often than their non-slider-throwing peers. This is the reason to worry about both Romo and the Giants’ playoff chances this season. Sergio Romo returning completely healthy before season’s end is in my mind just as important to the Giants’ hopes for a repeat as, say, Carlos Beltrán doing the same.
Predictably, the Giants have called up fireballing lefty Dan Runzler to replace Romo. Runzler profiles as a hard-thrower who has trouble keeping the ball in the strike zone. He should be the Giants’ third left-handed option.