baseball

What Jordan Romano Can Control, He Likes To Control Completely

© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

“Even in the minors I’ve just always had good extension,” said Jordan Romano. “I think that’s just the way my delivery worked out, but never something I pursued.”

This was in response to the first question I asked him before Wednesday night’s game. He’d always been among the league leaders in extension — how far in front of the rubber a pitcher releases the ball.

Here’s what happened right before I asked the question: Romano stood up. Some ballplayers will take questions seated, but in my experience most prefer to stand when being interviewed, usually at a sort of parade rest posture. I don’t know if they teach this stance, but it seems like the physical process of the aimlessly-scrolling-through-Instagram headspace for the taking-questions-on-the-record headspace.

And when I say Romano “stood up,” he unfurled himself from the chair in front of his locker like a folded air mattress being inflated. It brought to mind a story a teacher of mine once told about seeing Manute Bol get out of his car at a gas station. Romano stands a slender but imperious 6-foot-5, all limbs. Of course extension has always come naturally to him.

For several years, extension has been a well-known factor in pitcher effectiveness; by releasing the ball a few inches closer to the plate, a pitcher can shorten the time a batter has to react. JA Happ was the first player I remember this becoming a big talking point for, by way of explaining how he could be so effective throwing (at the time) 90 to 91 mph without getting many groundballs.

Extension isn’t just for people who could play small forward in the NBA; This year’s major league leader, according to Baseball Savant, is the 6-foot-2 Devin Williams. Tim Lincecum’s unorthodox delivery famously moved his release point closer to the plate. But it helps to have arms like Romano’s, which basically allow him to hand the ball to a catcher from the mound.

Romano is particularly effective because he throws hard enough — his four-seam fastball averages about 97 mph — not to need the help. He’s married that fastball to an upper-80s slider with sharp downward break.

“When it gets a little harder, it gets more cuttery,” Romano said. “So I try to keep it around [88 mph] as much as possible. I almost think of it as a curveball.”

That two-pitch combination — hard, tailing four-seamer paired with a breaking ball with sharp vertical drop — is the peanut butter and jelly of relief pitching. It’s what made Craig Kimbrel great, and Brad Lidge, and Robb Nen.

The proposition of the classic closer’s arsenal is much like the option in football: Once the play starts, there are two potential actions, only one of which it’s possible to defend at a time. So even if a hitter can hit Romano’s fastball or his slider, he needs to guess right first. With only three strikes to work with and Romano throwing his two pitches in roughly equal proportion — to say nothing of how his extension and velocity reduce the batter’s decision-making time — the odds are with the pitcher. I find an elegance to the minimalism of this approach, but to Romano, the minimalism itself is a big part of the appeal.

“In the ‘pen, I like to keep it as simple as possible,” he said. “For me, I think that works. It’s mostly heaters up and sliders off that and honestly just try to throw as many sliders as possible. A lot of good relievers stick to the same project: Heaters up, sliders down.”

As traditional as Romano’s pitch repertoire may be, he takes great care to maintain an emotional and mental state that suits him specifically. Closer gets portrayed as kind of an aggro job, what with the hard fastballs and nasty breaking stuff and heavy metal entrance music. But Romano is anything but that. And remaining on an even keel is essential to his success.

“I guess this may be a different approach to others, maybe not,” he said. “But I judge my outings on my mental approach, like how well I competed out there. How well I controlled the game — if I let it speed up on me or if I stayed in control. Baseball’s such a weird thing, like you can make great pitches and still get beat, so I judge my outings on my mental status.”

It might sound weird, but Romano’s attention to his own mental state is just his way of focusing on process over results. And given the visissitudes of his chosen profession, accepting that the outcome is not entirely within his control seems like a healthy admission to make up front. (For example: minutes after I filed the first draft of this story last night, Romano entered a tie game with a runner on third, gave up a single to Kyle Schwarber, and got tagged with a blown save.) Closers have to have short memories, after all.

Still, what Romano can control, he likes to control completely. He follows his routine so assiduously that in a different time he’d be called superstitious.

“I pretty much have my whole day planned out, from the minute I wake up,” he said. When he gets to the park, he always uses the same shower. He eats pasta before every night game. He always gets up to do dry work mid-game in the third inning, always takes a pre-workout supplement in the same inning.

“I just have a lot of quirks,” he said. “It’s almost to a fault, how detailed my routine is, but I need it.”

He believes that routine, as well as meditation and visualization exercises, can help him succeed in the playoffs — an environment he’s never encountered before.

“I feel like I’m as prepared as I can be, but yeah, it’s gonna be stressful,” he said. “Really fun and challenging. It’s going to be intense.”

The Blue Jays are all but certain to reach the playoffs, and Romano will surely handle some of their highest-pressure innings. But if he takes care of what he can control, postseason glory — like most things, for a man his size — could be within his reach.

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