After a successful debut in 2009 with the Blue Jays, starting pitcher Ricky Romero improved in almost every conceivable way in 2010. With two full seasons under his belt at the big league level and still just twenty-five years old, Romero has established himself as one of the game's best young starters. In August he signed a team friendly five-year extension that could keep him in Toronto through 2016.
The highlight of Romero's season came on May 15th against the Texas Rangers. It was the first of three complete games on the year and by far his most dominating performance. He allowed just five hits and no runs while striking out twelve against just one walk. For the month of May as a whole, Romero had a season best 2.30 FIP and a monthly season high of 10.45 strikeouts per nine innings.
Romero doesn't typically pile up the strikeouts, finishing the year at 7.46 K/9 compared to the league average of 7.13. Likewise, Romero doesn't exert above average control either: his 3.51 BB/9 checks in slightly worse than the league's 3.28. What propels Romero into the discussion of being a top-of-the-rotation starter is his excellent 55.2 percent groundball rate, ninth best in all of baseball.
All the groundballs help him work around the walks, and to be clear, there's nothing "wrong" with a 3.51 BB/9 rate for a starting pitcher. It definitely helps him avoid serving up home runs. Romero allowed just .61 HR/9, well below the league average of .96. Home run rates are prone to fluctuation but they're also tied to flyball rates. Romero didn't have much to worry about there either finishing the year with the sixth lowest flyball rate among all MLB starters.
Romero relied heavily upon his two and four-seam fastballs mixed in with a healthy dose of change-ups. He also features a curveball, and occasionally, a slider in his arsenal. The change-up, fastball, and curve were all above average pitches. Three above average pitches is crucial for a starter when trying to go through a lineup a second or third time in an outing.
The other requirement to become a top of the rotation starter is the ability to stay healthy and take the ball every five days on a regular basis. After taking 29 turns and pitching 178 innings in 2009, Romero made 32 starts and crossed the 200 inning pitched plateau finishing with 210. He wound up with a 3.73 ERA, a performance that looks repeatable with both his FIP (3.64) and xFIP (3.75) all in the same vicinity.
FanGraphs valued Romero's 2010 performance at four WAR, which they estimate would cost 16.1 million dollars on the open market. Romero will earn 750,000 next season, five million in 2012 and 7.5 million from 2013-15. Even if Romero's performance peaks around 3.8-4.2 WAR per year across the contract he will be an absolute bargain for the Blue Jays.
Romero will be 26 next season, and after improving from 2009 on his strikeouts, walks, and homers per nine and upping his groundball rate while dropping his line drive rate, there's reason enough to believe he hasn't reached his ceiling. With a few more strikeouts and a few less walks, Romero could be a Cy Young contender as early as next season.