Saddled with the impossibly high expectations created by last fall’s postseason performance, Yordano Ventura was set up for failure in 2015. The Kansas City Royals let James Shields walk, christened the 24-year-old Ventura the ace of their staff, and handed him the ball on Opening Day. With the ink still drying on his five-year, $23 million extension, Ventura delivered six innings of one-run ball to help the Royals down the Chicago White Sox 10-1 on the first day of the 2015 season.
It was seemingly all downhill from there, but was it really?
Of all the young pitchers in the game of baseball, Ventura arguably oozes the most potential. The tiny right-hander puts his entire body into a 100 mph fastball that he complements with a wipeout breaking ball and changeup at 88. When all three pitches are working, Ventura is next to unhittable.
For a large part of the season, though, Ventura seemed very hittable. As late as August 6, his ERA was as high as 5.29 after consecutive starts against the Detroit Tigers and Toronto Blue Jays spiked his ERA nearly half a run. Blame the scheduling gods for that one, as no pitcher should have to face those lineups in consecutive starts.
That August 6 start, however, was the last bad one for Ventura. Over the past four starts he’s made, Ventura has pitched to a 1.08 ERA in 25.0 innings with 32 strikeouts. He dominated the Orioles earlier in the week with 11 strikeouts over six innings. Most came on his curveball. There has also been a dramatic decline in the line drive rate on his two best pitches — fourseam fastball and curveball.
For Ventura, leaning on the curveball and changeup is the key to success. While being able to touch 100 with ease is great, hitters do not shrink from velocity the way they once did. Ventura throws hard, but gets very few swings and misses on his fastball — somewhere between six and seven percent on his fourseamer, and even less on his sinker. While they may not square it up every single time, hitters are able to get the bat on Ventura’s fastball with good consistency, and yes, the old Little League adage, “the harder they throw, the farther it goes,” does hold true even at the Major League level.
Take Ventura’s June and July — the two months of the season in which he struggled the most. Opponents put up a .455 and .385 BAbip in those months. Seeing that many batted balls turn into hits is almost unheard of. Some of that’s luck, but a lot of it is attributable to the fact that Ventura threw his fourseamer well over 40 percent of the time in those months. By doing so, and giving hitters a better chance to put the ball in play, Ventura dug himself a big hole.
Ventura is not blameless in some of his struggles this year. He has made some bad pitches, and hitters have usually made him pay. His fastball gets hit when it’s center-cut, as it does for most pitchers in this day and age.
All those bright red boxes in the middle of the plate are no bueno.
Even through all of the struggles, Ventura did sprinkle in dominant outings, giving Royals’ fans hope that he still had that ace potential everyone saw last year. He never really lost anything, but was forced to develop as a pitcher rather than rely on God-given ability to run a fastball up to triple digits. As evidenced by the past four starts, that potential is still clearly oozing from the slight right-hander from the Dominican. Perhaps at times this year, Ventura grew too confident in his fastball. What’s more likely is that in just his second full season in the big leagues, Ventura tried to throw his way out of a slump, digging for extra velocity on each pitch. That’s not how it works at this level.
For Yordano Ventura to fully tap his potential, he must attack hitters with more than velocity. When he does that, the scoreless innings and strikeouts will pile up just as they did in the World Series last year and in his most recent shutdown start against the Orioles. There have been flashes of dominance all season, but Ventura appears to finally have pitching all figured out. Consider the sophomore slump ended.