Austin Romine entered play on Thursday night with 111 plate appearances before the All-Star break and 111 plate appearances after. The number of plate appearances is about the only thing those two stretches of the season have in common for the veteran backstop. The 30-year-old struggled mightily at the plate in the first half of the season, but has come alive since July 14th, his first action after the break. So what changed for Romine and how sustainable is his current performance at the dish?
For the first half of the 2019 MLB season, Romine completely lost the plate discipline that he was known for the previous two seasons. After posting a 6.3% walk rate in 2017 and a 6.4% walk rate in 2018, Romine only walked in 1.8% of at-bats before the All-Star break. Romine chased 42.1% of pitches outside the zone over the first half of the season, the worst mark among Yankees with 100+ plate appearances. He’s lowered that number to 35.8% in the second half of the season, and his walk rate has jumped from 1.8% to 7.2% as a result.
That hasn’t stopped Romine from remaining aggressive on pitches in the strike zone, however. He leads the Yankees in the second half of the season with a 77.5% swing percentage on pitches in the strike zone. But Romine’s not just swinging at the right pitches, he’s changed the trajectory of his batted balls. In the first half of the season nobody on the Yankees hit fewer line drives than Romine. In the second half, only Aaron Judge and Mike Tauchman hit more line drives. Romine’s fly ball and groundball rates went down significantly and his line drive rate skyrocketed from 14.3% to 25.9%.
With an increase in line drives normally comes an increase in BABIP, and that’s exactly what Romine has experienced since returning from the All-Star break with a seemingly revamped approach. A major part of Romine’s turnaround would appear to be his ability to go with the ball, no matter where it’s pitched. Since mid-July, Romine has been spraying batted balls from foul line to foul line, something he struggled with early in the 2019 season.
The Yankees catcher hit more than 42% of his batted balls up the middle in the first half, second only to Cameron Maybin. He completely flipped the script after the break, though. Since July 14th, Romine has increased his pull rate by 11.6% and his opposite-field rate by 3.9%, showing his willingness to go with the pitch.
The results of all the above? Romine went from slashing .231/.245/.315 with a 44 wRC+ in the first half to slashing .333/.378/.569 with a 147 wRC+ in the second half. While it’s unfair to expect Romine, who owns a career 71 wRC+, to produce at this level all the time, it’s certainly encouraging for a Yankees team that could be without Gary Sanchez to start their chase for title number 28.
There’s not a backup catcher (or any catcher really) in the league who can replace the power Sanchez brings to a lineup, but a combination of strong receiving skills and a solid approach at the plate have made Romine a major plus when called upon in recent months. It’s been a tale of two halves for the backstop, but he certainly seems to have figured it out at the right time for the Yankees.