SURPRISE, Ariz. — There’s no telling how long Yordano Ventura is going to remain this spring in the Royals’ big-league camp. He’s here for just a look, after all. His resume shows all of six games above Class A.
By BOB DUTTON
The Kansas City Star
Reassignment to minor-league camp, most likely Class AA Northwest Arkansas, seems inevitable. Even he knows that.
“I’m just trying to get better every day,” he said. “I want to show everybody I can pitch and make a good impression.”
Oh, he’s making an impression.
“The kid is very interesting,” manager Ned Yost said. “The ball explodes out of his hand. He’s got a very nice changeup and a very nice breaking ball. All three pitches, he pretty much throws for strikes.
“His fastball is fairly straight, but it’s overpowering. It looks like it’s 98. And then it looks likes it’s 138 when he mixes his changeup in.”
Ventura, 21, got a quick lesson on the need to mix his pitches and remain under control last Friday when he faced big-league hitters for the first time. He blew through Texas in his first inning and got two quick outs in his second inning before things went awry.
After David Murphy sliced a single, Ventura tried to reach back for more against Nelson Cruz. Ventura jumped ahead on a 98-mph fastball before overthrowing a curve and a change, which both got past catcher Salvy Perez for wild pitches.
Ventura then overthrew a 99-mph fastball that missed high before coming back with another fastball. This one, too, he overthrew, and it stayed up. Even at 98 mph, Cruz didn’t miss it. The result was a cannonading two-run homer.
“He tried to do too much to Cruz, and he started to leave the ball up a little bit,” Perez said. “Before that, everything he threw was unbelievable.
“His changeup and curveball are both very good. He’s got really good stuff. He just needs to focus a little bit more and keep the ball down … because he throws hard.”
Call it a learning moment.
Ventura represents one of the Royals’ successes from their increased emphasis throughout Latin America in recent year. He was a 17-year-old with a mid-80s fastball when signed for $28,000 in October 2008.
He was already 5-feet-11 but only 140 pounds.
A year-and-a-half at the Royals’ Dominican academy preceded a move in 2010 to the Arizona Rookie League, where his potential came into clear view when he registered 58 strikeouts in 522/3 innings.
Ventura struck out 88 in 2011 in 841/3 innings at Class A Kane County, but his effectiveness lagged behind his potential due to command issues. Specifically, he was still trying to overpower every hitter.
“He was frustrating,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said, “because all he wanted to do was throw hard. He wanted to blow hitters away. He wanted to throw 100 mph on every pitch.
“It got to the point where we told him, ‘Ace, you’re coming out of the game if you don’t stop that.’ He did get pulled from games. Two or three pitches, if he’s letting it go, (Kane County pitching coach) Jim Brower would whistle from the dugout, and if he did it again, out of the game.
“We were trying to get him to stay within his ability. Trust your arm strength, repeat your delivery and throw strikes. Last year, when he came into spring training, the message to him was: If you want to make our Wilmington club, this is what we have to see out of you.
“What he realized, I think, is he doesn’t have to hump up to throw fastballs by guys. So his delivery was a lot better.”
Everything was better.
Ventura went from a legit prospect to a top prospect. His strikeout rate actually increased and his overall effectiveness zoomed. He was picked to the Carolina League All-Star team and later chosen to start the All-Star Futures Game for the World team.
Picollo credits Wilmington pitching coach Steve Luebber for getting Ventura to buy into the Royals’ approach.
“Steve wanted to tell him, `A couple of times a game, if you want to air it out, pick the right spot and go ahead.’ It was a compromise, and (Ventura) started to sniff out when he could do it.
“If you’ve got a (No.) four hitter up, and there’s a guy on base, all right, here comes 100. He knew he could do it. OK, now get back to what you’re doing and save the next bullet for another time.”
The long-held view in the industry held Ventura would eventually wind up in the bullpen because he was simply too small to muster the stamina required for 100 pitches on 30-plus occasions per season.
That was understandable a few years ago. Not necessarily anymore.
“Now, I’m 180,” he said. “I want to get to 190 or 195. That way, with a little more weight, I’ll get a little more confidence on the ball.”
The Royals believe the result could be a pitcher capable of fronting their rotation within the next few years — and for years to come.
“Is he a starter or a reliever?” Picollo said. “I get that question all of the time. He’s a starter because of his feel for his curveball. He’s got a good changeup. He’s just got to use it more.
“Also, if you’re going to make 70 appearances out of the pen, size factors in as well. The days in-between for him (as a starter) might be better for him than throwing two out of three nights, getting a couple of days off and throwing back-to-back nights.”
Ventura will get every chance to prove he belongs in the rotation.
“He looks small, but Pedro Martinez was small,” Yost said.
Martinez is 5-11, like Ventura, and weighed roughly 170 pounds throughout the prime of his career. It’s true that most hard-throwing, diminutive Latin pitchers are likened to Martinez. But Ventura, when he isn’t called “Ace” is usually called “Lil’ Pedro.”