Blue Jays' Jordan Romano ascending into one of baseball's elite closers

Romano has blossomed into arguably the best closer in the game thanks to his deadly fastball-slider combination.

Jordan Romano is the glue that holds the Blue Jays bullpen together. (Getty)
Jordan Romano is the glue that holds the Blue Jays bullpen together. (Getty)

TORONTO – Tim Mayza still gets a kick out of Jordan Romano’s transformation on the mound.

The two pitchers are tight, having first played together in the minor leagues in 2014. By nature, relievers are odd human beings, Mayza explained, and he knows his shaggy-haired counterpart to be a joker and a “pot stirrer.” So, when Romano psyches himself up and takes charge in the ninth inning with ice in his veins, it’s wildly entertaining.

“I think the fans see him on the mound and see him have that killer instinct, laser focus, self-talk out there, and just intensity,” Mayza said. “But knowing him away from the field, it's like two different people.”

This year, Romano has reinforced his status as one of baseball’s terminators. A certified late-inning machine, the 30-year-old is tied for third in MLB with nine saves. His Baseball Savant page burns bright red, too, as Romano ranks in the 97th percentile or better in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, expected slugging percentage and chase rate. But his dominance on the mound is a product of a well-thought-out technique that gets the Blue Jays closer to where he needs to be mentally.

“I always say to myself, ‘Keep your mind where your feet are,’” Romano said. “When you're up there, you can be worried about 100 different things.”

That serene prompt is part of a gradual process Romano uses to get himself geared up for the game’s most apprehensive moments. First, the right-hander usually keeps it loose for three innings. After that, he’ll take some dry reps — sightings of Romano miming pitches in the bullpen are quite common — and then disappear for more sophisticated warmup exercises.

When it’s time to enter, he snaps in, and if Romano is pitching at Rogers Centre, he gets a thunderous ovation boosted by flashing red lights and bone-rattling electronic music.

“After doing it a little while, I think the nerves are a little bit less,” Romano said. “If I'm in one-run game two years ago, I'm a nervous wreck. I can still perform like that, but now it's just kind of like, ‘Hey, this is business as usual.’”

Once he’s on the hill, Romano stalks his prey. His movements have a tense rhythm to them, and as he waits for the sign from his catcher, his throwing arm hangs limp, swaying back and forth like a snake ready to strike. As the last out is recorded, the Jays closer rockets off the mound, hollers, and meets catcher and long-time friend Danny Jansen for their signature handshake.

Unsurprisingly, Blue Jays manager John Schneider loves what he’s seen from Romano this season; it’s nice to have arguably the best closer in baseball. The Jays skipper first coached the righty in A-ball, and he lauded Romano for building up the zen to handle late-inning stress.

“He's so mild-mannered, and then you see him out there in the ninth,” Schneider said. “He’s all business, so it's cool.”

When Schneider first met Romano, the Canadian was still grinding out a career as a starting pitcher. In the minor leagues, starters are groomed to pace themselves and develop a diverse weapon wheel of pitches to get hitters out with. That philosophy was always a clunky fit for Romano.

“It's funny,” Schneider said, “because I had him for four years in the minors as a starter, and it felt like a reliever locked in a starter’s body … where we wanted him to throw his changeup [but] his fastball and slider were kind of what you see here.”

Romano’s stuff has blossomed since he ditched the changeup and became a full-time reliever, and there’s evidence his pitches are even sharper in 2023. He’s now throwing the slider 65% of the time (up from 52% last year), and that pitch is consistently generating more 12-6 movement. That’s always been the direction Romano wants from his breaking ball; if the four-seamer plays up in the zone, the drop from the slider becomes more dramatic.

“I think he's kind of mastered that [fastball-slider] pairing, and it's been really fun to watch,” Mayza said.

Romano has polished the fastball-slider combo to generate more ugly swings. (Chart From Baseball Savant)
Romano has polished the fastball-slider combo to generate more ugly swings. (Chart From Baseball Savant)

Then there’s the extension aspect. Only Alexis Diaz of the Reds gets a longer average extension towards the plate than Romano’s 7.5 feet. That means, thanks to his rangy stride and long arms, Romano gets way closer to hitters on each pitch, making his 97-mph heater feel closer to 100 mph.

So, after a couple dominant years and a 2022 All-Star berth, does Romano still deserve more respect on his name?

“You watch him day-to-day, and you're like, ‘Yeah, this guy has what it takes to be out there,’” Mayza said. “So, [is he] underrated? Yeah, maybe in the sense that nobody really talks about him compared to the big-name guys. But to us, he's awesome, and we're really happy to have him.”