Ricky Romero was a very good pitcher. Now he isn't. That's an oversimplification, of course, because Romero's problems are very complicated, some sort of amalgamation of mechanical issues, crisis of confidence and, at this point, mental exasperation.
An All-Star with the Blue Jays in 2011, Romero went 9-14 with a 5.77 ERA last year while leading the American League in walks. After walking 10 and allowing 17 hits in 13 spring training innings, Romero didn't make the Jays' Opening Day roster, something he obviously wasn't happy with.
But that was hardly rock bottom. He worked on his mechanics, made one walkless start in the Florida State League and the Jays declared him ready for major league action. The Mariners knocked him out after four innings (three hits, three runs, three walks) and then he lasted just 29 pitches against the Rays.
But that wasn't rock bottom.
That came on Monday, pitching for Triple-A Buffalo, when he faced 10 batters and couldn't get out of the first inning, allowing eight runs. The Blue Jays still remain hopeful that he can fix things. Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos to the Toronto Sun:
Given his last start, is he mentally fried? "I don't know," Anthopoulos replied. "He hasn't said that to me. He hasn't been able to pinpoint anything. I think you have to be open to anything at this point.
"Some people have talked about confidence and so on. I don't know how you could be confident when you're not having some success. It's the age-old question, what comes first? Everyone has theories and we brainstorm and we've had so many people come up with ideas. It's one of those things that he continues to work and pitch and hopefully at some point he's going to find it again."
Yeah, but he seems to be getting worse, not better.
"Ironically enough you talk to the staff and they actually, they're somewhat optimistic," Anthopoulos added. "They felt like there's some soft contact. We all see the walks and this and that but they still feel like he's got a chance to turn the corner here and that's all that we can go off of.
The thing that's difficult to assess about Romero's performance is that everyone -- including Romero, apparently -- is suggesting his problems are with his delivery. In four starts with Buffalo, however, he's walked 20 batters in 13.2 innings, suggesting that perhaps his problems have gone beyond mechanics and into Steve Blass territory.
If you're not familiar with the Blass story, he was a World Series hero for the Pirates in 1971, throwing two complete-game victories including Game 7. He won 19 games the next year but then suddenly developed a mental block in 1973 and couldn't throw strikes. (He walked 84 in 88.2 innings and the next year in Triple-A walked 103 in 61 innings.) That's how the term Steve Blass Disease was coined. It's unfair to Blass, now a long-time Pirates announcer. Former major league pitching coach Tom House called the affliction "The Creature."
I'm not saying there is some underlying psychological damage that needs to be repaired, just that at some point you do have to wonder. Romero always lived on the edge with his control as is.
For now, he's trying to develop consistency in his mechanics. Here is video from Romero's start against Seattle. Here's video from a complete game win over the Angels in September 2011. Now, those few clips against Seattle were the good results, so it's hard to see big differences here, although I'd suggest his 2011 windup appears a little smoother.
From Gregor Chisholm's MLB.com story in spring training, here's what the Jays were trying to get Romero to do:
The goal is to have Romero pitch with his hips more square to the plate. He has a tendency to throw across his body, with his front foot falling off to the side. It's a directional issue and one that causes problems with his command.
To date, most of the work has centered around the lower half of his body, but that will now be expanded to the upper half as well. When Romero moves east-to-west with his frame and not north-to-south, his arm slot also has a tendency to drop and there isn't a proper finish to each pitch.
Jays fans are familar with the reconstruction of Roy Halladay, who in his second season in the majors in 2000 was sent all the back to Class A ball after posting a 10.64 ERA in 67.2 innings with Toronto. He remade himself and returned a better pitcher.
I'd suggest that Halladay is the rarity in this situation. In Romero's case, you're trying to fix years of muscle memory. That's not easy. Guys like Rick Ankiel and Dontrelle Willis never recovered from "The Creature." Former Braves reliever Mark Wohlers -- who walked 33 in 20.1 innings in 1998 -- didn't eventually bounce back, although he first underwent Tommy John surgery.
In a book he wrote last year, "A Pirate for Life," Blass wrote when he was struggling there were nights he would cry in his backyard at home. He never recovered but learned to remember the great moments he had.
I have no idea if Romero will get back to having more moments of his own, but here's hoping he does.