TORONTO -- Listen closely at Blue Jays Summer Camp, and you’ll start to hear one name over and over, often unprompted. Jordan Romano.
The Canadian right-hander has gone from a fringe reliever at the beginning of Spring Training to being mentioned among the club’s potential high-leverage arms in front of closer Ken Giles.
This begins and ends with Romano’s slider. Pitching coach Pete Walker, who doesn’t toss around empty praise, loves what he’s seen so far.
“Romano right now is showing plus power with a devastating slider,” Walker said recently. “I know we saw him last year good for a little bit, then he physically had some issues which kept him from seeing those elite numbers velocity wise, but he looks outstanding right now. He could end up being a big part of this bullpen.”
Two days after Walker said that, Romano pitched the first inning of Wednesday’s intrasquad game and proved his coach right. He struck out Bo Bichette swinging with a slider, then froze Rubén Tejada on his way to striking out the side. He needed just 14 pitches, including nine strikes, and looked in complete control of the inning.
The slider that got Bichette wasn’t his best, but it might have told us the most. Romano had just buzzed Bichette with a heavy fastball high and inside, which allowed him to still make it work with a slider that might have caught more of the plate than he wanted. These two pitches need one another, especially now that Romano’s dropped his changeup altogether.
“This is actually the first offseason where my primary focus hasn’t been working on a changeup," Romano said. “This year I worked a lot with the Rapsodo, the machine that gives you the analytics on a certain pitch, and tried to get it really dialed in.”
Romano throws two different sliders depending on the count, and he’s benefiting from a new grip on the pitch. If it’s an 0-0 count and he wants to attack the zone, there’s one slider for that. If he’s got a hitter down 1-2 in the count and wants to sharpen up the pitch with more downward action, he can rip off the second version of his slider.
This comes from a decision Romano made at the end of 2019 to fully explore his pitches' successes and failures. He’d flashed his talent early with the Blue Jays in his MLB debut, but faded quickly and ended up posting a 7.63 ERA over 15 1/3 innings. He had the arm talent, so why wasn’t it working?
Location, location, location.
“This year, it’s attacking up in the zone with my heater, down in the zone with my slider,” Romano said. “Before I wanted to attack down in the zone with my heater. I looked at the numbers, and I was really getting hurt when I tried to go down with it. I’m starting to work higher in the zone now.”
Romano’s fastball velocity was fine last year, averaging 94.6 mph, but he lost some juice late and was always confident that there was more in there. He’s found it, and even without a public radar gun at Rogers Centre for Summer Camp, watching hitters’ reactions is enough to tell you that it’s sneaking up on them.
As the Blue Jays rebrand their bullpen to feature more power arms than it has in recent years, Romano has a shot to be a core piece and represent that Giles-like style.
“I’m definitely throwing a little harder at this time than I did last year. It’s mostly upper-90s,” Romano said. “Last year I was low- to mid-90s at this point, so it’s definitely ticked up.”