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Sergio Romo is heating up in A’s bullpen

Ignore the 7.30 ERA

Tampa Bay Rays v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s waited out the bullpen market last winter, and one of their prizes for that gamble was Sergio Romo on a modest one-year free agent contract.

That was a nice get! Romo has been nonstop excellent for more than a decade, with a level of long-term consistency that is rare among relievers. Nobody’s perfect, but Romo has never been less than solid over a full season and he’s almost always been good.

Unfortunately, the right-hander got off to a rough start in 2021. His first seven games, through April 21:

  • Romo, first 7 gms: 6⅓ ip, 9 runs, 4 Ks, 3 BB, 2 HBP, 1 HR, 12 hits

It was a disaster. He had more runs than innings, and more free passes (BB + HBP) than strikeouts. Statcast put his xwOBA at a gargantuan .401, including a dozen pieces of hard contact, half of those being rockets over 100 mph in exit velocity. On an individual level, only two of the seven outings were scoreless, and only one of those really went well.

Cue the understandable panic. Was this the end of Romo as a trustworthy late-inning arm? He’s never relied on velocity, and his pitches still move like crazy, but he’s 38 and Father Time comes for everyone eventually.

Since then, Romo has pitched in seven more games, with the majority coming against the contending Rays and Blue Jays.

  • Romo, next 7 gms: 6 ip, 1 run, 7 Ks, 2 BB, 0 HBP, 0 HR, 2 hits

That’s more like the reliever we were expecting. Granted, he was mostly used with the team trailing on the scoreboard, but the games were almost always still close so they weren’t necessarily garbage time. Break it down individually and it looks even better:

  • Entered jam trailing by two, with two on and two out, got a popout to escape
  • Scoreless inning at end of close loss, albeit issued two walks
  • Next three outings: Perfect 1-2-3 frames, twice with 2 Ks, twice in under 10 pitches, and once to hold a close lead
  • Entered jam trailing by one, with bases loaded and one out, got hammered, all inherited runners scored plus one, hurt his leg making a hustle play backing up a teammate’s error, causing him to hop around in visible pain after every pitch, then still recorded two more outs and even tried to help cover first base on a grounder even though he could barely walk
  • Three days later, came back fine and struck out the side in a one-run game

That’s six good games and one bad, which is a promising rebound. And even on the bad day, he went above and beyond in what I can only describe as a championship-level effort, between heads-up hustle, gutting through pain, and (although the damage had already been done) still recording outs almost literally on one leg. If that’s your bad day, then I want you on my team.

Statcast is a fan of the recent improved split, too, with a minuscule .152 xwOBA. Out of 22 batters, only four hit it hard, including the two hits, a lineout, and a groundout. Every other batted ball was a weak auto-out with virtually no chance of success. And that’s only the ones who made contact, as he struck out 32% of his hitters.

Sure, it’s only seven good games. But the April slump was only seven bad games, and before that he was good for 13 years. Which part feels like the outlier? I’d bet on the small sample at the beginning of a new season.

There’s not any specific reason for concern anyway. His velocity is, I dunno, 24 mph? Who cares, his pitches still dance around like poorly constructed paper airplanes, and as long as he can lift his arm to throw them and maintain whatever muscle memory he uses to command them I don’t see why it should ever stop working. The last time he was on the injured list was 2017, for an ankle.

Romo’s ERA still stands at an ugly 7.30, because it takes a long time for a reliever’s stats to correct after such a thorough torching. His peripherals are ugly, because he really did get beaten in those early April games, he wasn’t just unlucky. But set that all aside and check it again in July.

Twice this year, the A’s have asked Romo to guard a close lead, and both times he focused up and nailed it down with a perfect inning — including the only good game he had during his slump. Last year for the division-winning Twins he was 87% successful in save/holds. For his career he’s at 91.2% in 355 situations, which is an elite conversion rate in sizable volume. And he can do it in October, considering he has three rings, no need to mention in what uniform.

There’s no sense in truly predicting relievers, but there’s simply nothing to worry about here. Romo had a couple rough weeks in April, and now he’s heating back up to his customarily high level. Appears healthy, knock on wood, until or unless further notice. He hasn’t gotten much setup work yet, but when he begins to, it should continue to go well according to all data he’s ever produced, including this very season.

It’s looking more and more like the A’s got their bargain late-inning arm after all.