Blue Jays shouldn't panic about Jordan Romano, but can't ignore his command issues

The Toronto Blue Jays' closer is coming off two straight disastrous outings, but there's no reason to believe he can't bounce back.

The last time Toronto Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano allowed multiple runs in consecutive outings, he was wrapping up his 2019 rookie season — a year that saw him post a 7.63 ERA and look nothing like the high-leverage arm he'd later become.

So it's reasonable that the 30-year-old allowing two runs in each of his last two appearances has caused a stir.

The Blue Jays are in the middle of a tight playoff race, and the team's closer has faltered in games critical to the club's fate. Looking ahead, Toronto may need to win some tight games down the stretch to secure its playoff spot, and October baseball tends to include more than its fair share of nail-biters.

Add in worries about how a cracked nail might've affected Romano, particularly on Saturday in Tampa Bay, and it's easy to understand why the level of concern is rising.

Jordan Romano is going through a rough patch at the moment. (Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
Jordan Romano is going through a rough patch at the moment. (Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

Blue Jays manager John Schneider doesn't appear too worried, though.

"You look at the result and it wasn't ideal tonight," he said following Tuesday night's game. "But you look at the overall body of work and you look at the stuff — and the stuff was there."

That is the crucial point because even the best pitchers are capable of rough outings, and there's always a chance that those appearances will be clustered together. Unless a pitcher's repertoire loses its bite, there's usually no reason to believe he's become fundamentally worse and will perform at a lower level in the future.

As far as stuff goes, Romano hasn't fallen off a cliff in the last two games. His fastball velocity in those contests (97.4 mph) is approximately equal to his season average (97.7). His slider even has been 0.8 mph harder.

From a movement standpoint, the differences are subtle.

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

Most of those numbers match up relatively well. The difference between the horizontal movement on the fastball is large on a percentage basis, but Romano's heater is a vertically-oriented pitch that isn't designed to run horizontally.

The drop-off in horizontal movement for the slider is more notable because that's an important part of that pitch's design. That said, Romano's breaking ball has not been what's gotten him in trouble lately. Only one of the six hits he's allowed in his last two outings came against it, and it has still generated a whiff on six of 10 swings.

Even the hit against the slider was a single off a pitch that could not have painted the corner better.

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

The offering that opponents have teed off on lately is the fastball. While its movement and velocity have been close to Romano's season averages, the location is off.

Here's a heatmap of the closer's fastballs in 2023 prior to his meltdown on Saturday:

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

Here's a heatmap of where Romano has thrown his heaters in the last two games:

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

When you throw meatballs, you're going to get punished.

That's what's happened to the right-hander recently. The complicating factor here is whether the fingernail issue is causing Romano to have difficulty gripping his fastball, making it more difficult to command.

Prior to Tuesday's game, Schneider reportedly indicated that the fingernail problem is a thing of the past. That means that, for now, the most logical conclusion to make is that Romano has just encountered a rough patch with his command.

There are a few ways to interpret that. It would make sense to think that what the closer is going through is a passing thing, and he still has the tools to dominate in high-leverage situations. Clearly, that's what Schneider believes.

Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, Romano's inability to put the ball where he wants to lately is part of a larger trend. Since returning from the IL due to a back injury, the closer's walk rate has skyrocketed.

In those 14 games it sits at 13.2% — far higher than it was before he hit the IL (8.5%).

Via FanGraphs
Via FanGraphs

It's fair to characterize Romano's recent issues as location problems rather than something more fundamental being wrong. At the same time, when he's demonstrated subpar control for more than a month, that problem appears to be a little less trivial.

The Blue Jays don't have much time to figure out if Romano can start harnessing his stuff as well as he did earlier in the year. That's certainly a possibility, but it's also difficult to count on.

Schneider seems to be confident in the Canadian, but fireballer Jordan Hicks hasn't allowed a run in more than a month, and Tim Mayza has been the team's best reliever by ERA (1.40), FIP (2.44) and fWAR in 2023 (1.4).

Although Romano's recent stumbles don't warrant outright panic, there may be a time in the days to come when utilizing him as a ride-or-die option becomes less appealing.