Imagine if I told you before the season that a New York Yankees catcher was slashing .329/.400/.571 in mid-June. Who might you guess this mystery player was? It’s a no-brainer, right? Gary Sanchez is a great young hitter, and those numbers represent the middle-of-the-order thumper the Yankees hoped he would become!
In reality though, those numbers belong to none other than Austin Romine, the ever-steady backup to Sanchez. How on earth did a 29-year-old, career .220 hitter with a .577 OPS and 7 total home runs to his credit, morph into such an offensive juggernaut?
Romine has made several changes to his game this year both offensively and defensively that have resulted in a much-improved version of everyone’s favorite backup catcher.
Let’s start by looking at Romine’s drastic change in offensive approach. In 2018, Romine is hitting the ball harder than ever before. He went from averaging 85.7 mph in exit velocity from 2016-17 to an 89.7 mph clip this year. He is making hard contact on almost 37 percent of his batted balls, shattering his career best rate of 29.4 percent set back in 2013. This new propensity for hard-hit baseballs has resulted in a career-best ground ball rate. Romine is hitting the ball in the air more often, which usually results in more extra-base hits and less ground outs.
Romine has also become a smarter hitter. He knows who he is, and doesn’t try to do too much at the plate. Romine has seen more pitches per plate appearance every year he has been in the big leagues, topping out at 4.1 pitches per at-bat this season, which is well above average.
Romine is also hitting the ball to the opposite field at an elite clip. Take a look at his spray chart this season.
That’s a lot of balls in right field! In kind, Romine is hitting a whopping 42.1 percent of his batted balls to the opposite field, which is the highest percentage in the big leagues.
This can be attributed to Romine’s new batting stance. Take a look at three screen grabs here, the first from 2013, the next from 2017, and the last from 2018.
Notice the differences in his stance. In the first one (2013), Romine stood straight upright and didn’t have much success. In the next image (2017), Romine’s stance is slightly open. As to be expected with that stance, he pulled the majority of balls in play.
This year though, Romine is using a closed stance. The advantage of the closed stance is that it gives the batter a better chance at hitting the outside pitch, and particularly to drive it into the opposite field. Romine has done that to perfection this season.
But Romine’s improvement has even extended to his defensive performance, too. While always a sound backstop, Romine lacked the throwing arm and pitch framing abilities to be an elite defensive catcher.
This year though, Romine has improved dramatically. He hasn’t allowed a single passed ball as he has become a rock behind the plate. This is also the first season in Romine’s career in which he’s throwing out runners at an above-average clip. And as for pitch framing? He is 15th out of 55 catchers in terms of “stealing strikes,” or having a pitch outside the strike zone be called for a strike. And when you factor in Romine’s excellent rapport with his pitchers, he has truly become a stellar defensive catcher.
The truth is that Austin Romine has had an amazing season so far this year for the Yankees. It is still only mid-June though, and Romine doesn’t even have 100 plate appearances or 30 games played. There is a very real chance that Romine’s numbers begin to taper off a bit over the next month or so. While he’s been a nice story, he should by no means be stealing too much time away from Gary Sanchez.
However, that should not mar his contributions so far to the 2018 Yankees. Romine has been much better than expected, and has made the types of changes both offensively and defensively that suggest he can survive and thrive for years to come with his new approach. In a season in which several big stars, Sanchez included, have had their ups and downs, Romine’s stability has been much appreciated both in the box and behind the dish.
It may have taken 11 years after he was drafted, but Austin Romine has finally discovered himself.