The 2017 and 2018 seasons are supposed to be about sorting the roster, especially the pitching staff. After two years of washed-up veterans and future Korean league players, the Reds are finally starting pitchers who might improve the team’s fortunes. But, as is usually the case, these young hurlers have taken us on a bumpy ride.

Development is rocky. Ask Greg Maddux and Johnny Cueto who both received a beating from MLB hitters upon arrival for over a year, only to eventually excel at their craft. But plenty of other pitchers never recover from those early failures.

Brandon Finnegan has already been found wanting, cast aside after injuries zapped his velocity and compounded his control problems. He will ply his trade from the bullpen now, the first real casualty of ineffectiveness in the race to secure rotation spots.

We now have a reasonable amount of data on several rotation candidates, and it’s helpful to take stock of where they are as they reach certain milestones.

Sal Romano has started 32 MLB games, the equivalent of a full season. That’s more starts than Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed combined, 11 more than Michael Lorenzen and 18 more than Amir Garrett. He’s not a finished product by any means, but we have more data on him at the MLB level than most of his peers. It’s a good time to check in on Big Sal’s development.

In those 32 starts, Romano has posted an ERA of 4.92, FIP of 4.66, and SIERA of 4.80. He’s certainly had some promising stretches, but overall, he’s struggled to get outs at the Major League level.

That’s not surprising. He’s just 24 years old facing the best hitters on the planet. Even with the rough ERA, Romano has some things going for him that we shouldn’t overlook.

Romano has an excellent slider. When opposing hitters swing at it, they miss over 36% of the time, and when they put it in play, they hit groundballs over 61% of the time. Romano’s slider has a .196 batting average against, and he’s only let up 2 homeruns in his career on the pitch. It’s the crown jewel of his arsenal, and when he has it working, Romano gets much tougher to hit.

That slider helps Romano produce a bunch of groundballs overall. At 47.8% for his career, his groundball percentage is above league average, and when you pitch in the launching pad that is Great American Ball Park, you better keep as many balls on the dirt as possible. His ability to induce grounders also gets him some double plays, which is always nice, especially because he allows a lot of baserunners.

However, he needs to improve quite a bit to remain in the MLB rotation. First, Romano throws mainly two pitches: a fastball and the slider. He uses a changeup about 7% of the time, but hitters have rocked the pitch, batting .361 against it and slugging .583.

Starters typically need more than two pitches to succeed, and as of right now, Romano does not have a viable third pitch.

This reality has caused several problems. First, Romano doesn’t strikeout many batters, posting a strikeout percentage that is well below the average for National League starters. Guys can make that work if they don’t walk many people, but Romano also has a below-average walk rate. Almost every pitcher with with Romano’s K% and BB% has an unsightly ERA like Romano’s current one.

With only two pitches, Romano doesn’t get that many swings and misses. Either he needs to strikeout more batters or lower his walk percentage substantially. Romano was never a strikeout artist in the minor leagues, so it’s more likely that the more drastic change comes from walking fewer batters. At the same time, he has shown better strikeout capabilities in his last two starts.

Also concerning is that Romano lets up a lot of hits, over one an inning. Guys who get groundballs tend to let up more hits, but they are often singles, limiting the damage they cause. Romano’s current 1.47 WHIP in the Majors is consistent with his minor league career where batters had a BABIP of at least .318 in four of his five seasons.

Unfortunately, A lot of the contact against him this season has been hit hard. Romano ranks 280th out of 354 in xSLG, which predicts what a pitcher’s slugging percentage should be based on batted ball data. The hard contact has led to more homeruns in 2018 and with all those baserunners, it’s no wonder Romano’s ERA is almost 5 and a half.

Where does this leave Romano?

That’s a tough question to answer about a 24-year-old. I think Eric Longenhagen hit the nail on the head before the 2017 season when he suggested that Romano was either a back-end starter or dominant reliever.

He could always take a big jump forward with the changeup, but unless he does, Romano’s ceiling is probably a 4th or 5th starter. With his fastball/slider combination, he could also overwhelm hitters in shorter stints out of the bullpen with increased velocity.

Even if Romano improves, the Reds should be using 2018 to figure out whether they have better options. If they do, it would allow Romano to become an important part of the bullpen. If not, Romano settles in to his back-end starter role. Those are the most likely options right now, and for a guy drafted in the 23rd round, that’s really good.


23 Responses

  1. Matt WI

    Nice thoughts. Agree he is presenting himself as a #5. Yet, even his good moments don’t feel as promising to me as pre-injury Finnegan or, say, Aaron Harang back in the early days. Without a good change-up or something, it just doesn’t feel like something is there for a strong leap forward. That said, I fully acknowledge anything can happen for a pitcher a little later in their careers, but he’s not one I’d tie my boat to.

  2. Scott Carter

    Personally, I think it is time for the Reds to bring Stephenson up and let him start. I am not down on Romano and think that he can still be a starter, but Stephenson to me still has a higher ceiling. Bring up BobSteve and let Romano go to AAA and work on a change up or some other kind of off speed pitch.

  3. doofus

    Say hello to the bullpen Mr. Romano…his long term home. He’ll be decent there.

  4. CI3J

    I think Big Sal needs to develop another pitch, and given his frame, I think I know just the thing: A sinker. Sal is a big, tall guy. With the right kind of leverage, he should be able to deliver an extremely “heavy” sinker ala Brandon Webb. The problem is, he’d need someone to coach him on how to deliver the pitch, and as of right now I don’t know that there’s anyone in the organization that knows how to throw it effectively.

    But I feel like Sal needs a pitch that makes use of his size. The sinker could be just the thing, if he could learn it. That, mixed with a slider/fastball combo, would drive hitters crazy.

    • SultanofSwaff

      I’m thinking the same thing, a sinker…….or a splitter……or a cutter. His fastball is too straight and is usually up in the zone. He needs more movement on whatever pitch he pairs with the slider.

      Like Cody Reed and Amir Garrett, Romano’s fastball/slider combo would play up in the bullpen, where I ultimately think all 3 will end up. Viewed in that lens, the starting pitching depth becomes thin and BobSteve becomes all the more valuable.

  5. Bill

    I see him as more of the #6 starter for a good team, the guy that gets called up for a spot start or for injury. The Reds seem to have multiple guys who are back of the rotation at that moment, and to be competitive in the playoffs they need those 1 and 2 guys. Castillo, Stephenson, and Reed all have the physical talents, but don’t have the results. Harvey was once that guy, and maybe can regain some of that, but will soon be gone. Bailey showed flashes of that potential, but is now in AAA. Disco had some success before the injuries. All of those guys to me seemed to have more potential than Romano. He would still be in AAA if it wasn’t for the disaster the pitching staff has been the last two years with injuries

  6. Streamer88

    Unless he develops a circle change very quickly, or adds a 12-6 slow curve to his slider, Big Sal has no role in the rotation of a team aiming to win 84 or so games per year.

    He should be groomed to be the Brad Lidge of the Reds, whereby he enters high leverage situations from the pen and is told to throw 85% sliders (just not to Albert Pujols).

  7. Klugo

    Reds have an excellent bullpen now and the makings of a strong relief corps for the future. I see Big Sal fitting nicely in those plans unless someone wants to give us excellent trade value for him.

  8. WVRedlegs

    I think Big Sal is progressing. He had a decent April, a horrendous May, and is having a good June.
    We have to remember that the Reds 3 top young starters Castillo, Mahle and Romano have limited experience.
    Romano had 10 games and 49.1 IP’s at AAA in ’17.
    Mahle had 10 games and 59.1 IP’s at AAA in ’17.
    Castillo has had no experience at AAA.
    They were thrown to wolves early and are getting their ML legs underneath them. There really are no worries with Mahle. Romano is having a good June and we’ll see if it continues into July and August. Castillo is the one that has some concerns. It has been a pretty regressive year so far for Castillo. We are seeing some development occurring with Mahle and Romano, not so much with Castillo. That has the needle on my concern meter ticking up on Castillo.
    RStephenson should get another shot here soon. It may be time to send Castillo down for some soul searching and work on his pitches in Louisville. Then let RStephenson have one last crack at earning a rotation spot.

    • Scott Carter

      I agree but Stephenson needs more than just a September call up. Give him at least 20 starts.

      • roger garrett

        Yes please.Give them a legitimate shot.He pitched well with the starts he got at the end of last year but for some reason that didn’t matter.

    • Nick Carrington

      Romano had a 5.87 FIP in April and walked almost as many as he struck out. He’s been pretty consistently bad with a few good starts here and there.

      I’m somewhat encouraged by his last two starts because be missed more bats. We will see.

      • WVRedlegs

        Peel that FIP back a layer or two.
        April: 4.65 ERA, 5.87 FIP, 5.35 xFIP, opponents hit .252/.331/.450.
        May: 7.45 ERA, 5.27 FIP, 4.72 xFIP, opponents hit .298/.380/.537.
        June: 3.96 ERA, 3.90 FIP, 3.51 xFIP, opponents hit .234/.287/.394.
        Using Your FIP, there has been monthly improvement even with the bad ERA and slash line in May.
        Romano had a 5 game stretch from May 14 through June 6 that he gave up 6 R, 7 R, 5 R, 4 R, and 5 R. That is 27 R in 5 G, all earned. Add in the 5 R he gave up to the Cubs a couple of day ago, that is 32 R in 6 G, all earned. His other 10 starts he’s given up 21 R. Not too bad. Maybe that 5 game stretch is going to be an anomaly, a bump in the road, as they weren’t scattered about his 16 games. We just have to hope that this Cubs game doesn’t start another putrid 5 game stretch. He does have 1 more June start, so his June numbers could go down or up just a bit.
        There is pretty decent improvement here for a young pitcher. Some encouraging signs. I like Romano’s new sinker he is throwing this year, it has good movement. He has 2 curveballs. His change up needs much work.
        Now is not the time to jerk him out of the rotation. He was pretty good against the Cubs until things went sideways. Using your cautionary tone, we will see.

    • roger garrett

      All including Bob should be given the ball every 5th day the rest of the year and then we can evaluate some more.Takes time and starts and plenty of patience with guys learning at the big league level.Harvey will go at the deadline and Bob takes his spot.Exciting time with all of these young guys in the rotation and obviously we need them to get better.I differ from most but the reason that Disco and Harvey can go a little deeper in games is that they have the most experience and know how to get through a line up the third time.The rest don’t just yet but the average I believe is a little over 5 innings per start so they are average if you will with room to get better.Castillo and Bob have swing and miss stuff,Mahle is 23 and a bull dog and big Sal has showed some signs of getting better.Exciting times ahead for sure.

  9. citizen54

    I think they should swap Stephenson with Romano. Give Romano a chance to develop a third pitch in Louisville.

  10. Shchi Cossack

    Big Sal will be an important cog in the next competitive Reds team, a valuable asset and dominant pitcher, but the role will be from the bullpen. His youth and service time fit perfectly with the Reds needs. The Reds control Big Sal’s contract thru the 2023 season via arbitration. I believe his service clock has already exceeded 1.0 year this season since he began the season with 81 days of MLB service time. He becomes a valuable replacement in the bullpen for other relievers (Iggy, Hernandez, Hughes, etc) who are more valuable as trade assets right now. Romano will join the up and coming core of relievers to anchor the next great bullpen.

    The best scenario right now would be to option him back to AAA and recall Stephenson as a starter on the 25-man roster. This would allow Romano to transition as a reliever without the added pressure of learning at the MLB level and allow Stephenson to have a last, extended look as a MLB starter for the remainder of the season. As events unfold as the trade deadline approaches, I expect opportunities will open for Romano to return to the 25-man roster as a reliever and begin a long and successful career at the MLB level.

  11. lost11found

    Ramano’s Slider against the Cubs over the weekend looked really good. He was able to back door it and back foot it to lefties. It also gave the righties fits.

    As to that third pitch, it looked like in the Colorado series that he was using a cut fastball to try and back door the right side of the plate. Perhaps that is something he is working on as well. A good cutter to go with his 4 seamer and slider might just be enough to put him over the top.

  12. eric3287

    Here is my concern with the Reds pitching staff in general more than Sal specifically. From 2013-2018 there have been 74 NL starting pitchers between the ages of 23-26, including only those with enough IP’s to qualify. Here is the bottom of that list, by FIP:
    74 – Finnegan (2016, 23) 5.19
    73 – Romano (2018, 24) 5.09
    72 – Castillo (2018, 25) 5.03
    71 – Julio Tehran (2017, 26) 4.95
    70 – Rubby de la Rosa (2015, 26) 4.81
    69 – Mahle (2018, 23) 4.81

    So while I get that these are young pitchers, over the past 6 years, these guys are on track to have, collectively, 3 of the 5 worst seasons from a 23-26 year old, with only 2016 Brandon Finnegan being worse. I’m not ready to give up on any of them, xFIP doesn’t look quite as bad. But I would like to see sustained success, even for “young” pitchers.

    • Streamer88

      While I agree with your conclusion and your stat is impressive, it’s also unfair. Presumably 24.5 year old starters are better at the end of the year than the beginning (they are learning after all) and thus this stat becomes more powerful if their ERAs don’t improve throughout the season. Interesting to monitor.

  13. scottya

    Sal could exceed expectations with a league average change up that he could spot well enough to use in any count. Of course that’s the same for many failed starter’s.

    The window of opportunity for sal is going to close if he fails to develop that third pitch. He will be really good if he falls to the bullpen role.

  14. roger garrett

    I agree that I would like to see more consistency but it still will take awhile.As noted these guys had very little experience if any at AAA and very few starts last year in the majors.Going forward through this year I am good with 5 innings and keeping us in the game for all of these guys as being good enough for me.An extra inning or two along the way won’t hurt because I expect them also to have a stinker or two where they don’t make it to the 5th.I expect 2 or 3 of these guys to develop into solid pitchers in this league which to me is average or slightly better then that.Maybe the stars align and Disco makes it all the way back.Bob and Castillo are the keys for me.With swing and miss stuff if one comes through to a solid 1 or 2 then you have a middle of the pack rotation.Giving Bob,Amir and even Lorenzen some chances only increase the odds on ending up with a soild major league staff.No hurry for me as long as we stay the course and let these young guys pitch.