At the onset of spring training, Austin Romine was an afterthought in the minds of Yankees fans. Gary Sanchez appeared poised to claim the backup catching job in lieu of the John Ryan Murphy trade. In fact, General Manager Brian Cashman told reporters during the Winter Meetings that he would "like to unleash the Kraken, which is Gary Sanchez, on our roster in 2016 if I can." Despite the high praise, Sanchez struggled with his bat during Grapefruit League play. Meanwhile, Romine quietly hit his way on to the Major League roster. The Yankees have been rewarded as Romine has not only proved himself a quality defensive backstop, but also a productive hitter.
Romine owns a .292/.309/.462 slash line thus far in 2016. That's good for an even 100 wRC+. This level of production stands in stark contrast with his career numbers to date. In 2013, Romine's last extended stint in the Major League, he swatted an anemic .207/.255/.296 with a wRC+ of 49. The former top-100 prospect battled injuries and ineffectiveness during the 2014 campaign. The 2015 season fared worse for Romine, as he was designated for assignment on April 4th. He went unclaimed and spent most of the season catching for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre, making just two plate appearances for the Yankees.
What can explain Romine's resurgent bat? According to Jack Curry, Romine attributes his newfound success to "slowing [the] game down." Others speak to how he has matured as a batter. These descriptions only begin to scratch the surface of his improved hitting. More revealing, however, are the slight mechanical adjustments Romine has made while at the plate.
During his stints with the Yankees in 2013 and 2014, Romine stood in the batter's box with both knees bent while the pitcher set. His swing featured a sweeping leg kick which made it appear as if Romine was diving into the pitch. He wasted no time getting his bat to the ball. This season, however, Romine stands taller. His front leg is almost completely straight in the box. He places most of his weight on his back leg. He also exhibits a much more pronounced leg kick. His adjusted mechanics were on full display against the Baltimore Orioles last weekend. One could clearly see a distinguished leg kick with his RBI single against Tyler Wilson.
These changes do not spell out the entire story of Romine's sudden ability to hit the ball with authority, but they do lend credence to Romine's assertion that he has slowed the game. The mechanical adjustments allow the ball to travel farther before he swings. He is not rushing to get his bat into the zone. Leg kicks are about timing, and Romine appears to have found a pace that works.
The Yankees seem to have a knack for developing quality hitting backup catchers. Romine joins Murphy and Francisco Cervelli as the latest in the series. What makes Romine unique, however, is how close he was to baseball obscurity. The 2016 season was a make-or-break year for him. A poor performance would have resulted in him being either a journeyman backup or organizational player. Instead, he has established himself as a quality Major League backup catcher and a bright spot in the Yankees' lineup.