The moment arrived for Yordano Ventura in the first inning of Monday’s Cactus League outing. He already had yielded a pair of singles to the Cleveland Indians. He fell behind in the count to former All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis and prepared to lean on the power of his fastball.
The scenario resembled dozens of others from the previous season. In most cases, Ventura demonstrated the ability to bull through jams and overpower opponents with his heater. He reared back and fired a 2-1, 97-mph fastball at the waist. Kipnis swung late but still powered the pitch to the left-field fence. The ball clanked off the wall for a resounding RBI single.
It was just one moment, plucked from a spring game that bears little consequence for Ventura’s future. But it served as a reminder for one of the biggest challenges he faces as he prepares to lead the Kansas City pitching staff. The club hopes he can improve his offspeed pitches and become less reliant on his fastball.
“That’s what he has left to do,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “In big moments, to be able to stay under control and throw his offspeed pitches. If hitters get in fastball counts against him, they have to respect that.”
The Indians harried Ventura for three innings on Monday. He yielded seven hits. He piled up five strikeouts, but still issued a walk and committed a throwing error. Cleveland charged him for four runs and his Cactus League ERA jumped to 10.29.
Manager Ned Yost professed himself pleased with Ventura’s outing because he boosted his pitch count to 69 and continued to display lively action on his pitching. He conceded Ventura was still “refining“ his fastball precision.
“He does a really good job of commanding his fastball, 92 percent of the time,” Yost said before the game. “The other 8 percent of the time, he’ll kind of rear back and boom! Let it go. Which leads to a higher pitch count.”
Ventura insisted he felt content with his performance despite the unseemly statistics. He speculated that his shortened offseason has affected his performance in the early going. He “doesn’t feel as ready“ as he did in years past, he said through an interpreter.
Even so, there appears to be little immediate cause for concern. Ventura is expected to be Kansas City’s opening day starter. The Royals project at least 200 innings from him, a year after he posted a 3.20 ERA in 183 innings. As part of his development, Royals officials expect him to throw more curveballs and changeups, both of which are considered promising offerings.
Ventura threw his fastball 65.3 percent of the time in 2014, which ranked 13th highest among the 88 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. But both Eiland and Yost stressed Ventura could manage that ratio because he was still able to demonstrate the ability to throw his other pitches for strikes.
When 2014 began, Eiland considered Ventura’s changeup ahead of the curveball. Ventura could fit the changeup within the zone for strikes. His mastery of the curve was flakier. After the All-Star break, Ventura began to incorporate a 94-mph cutter into his arsenal, too.
The cutter fulfills the same purpose as the changeup. It upsets the opposing hitter’s timing, and tends to cause weakly hit balls. The combination could allow him to utilize his fastball with even more effectiveness in 2015.
“He throws enough curveballs and changeups for strikes to offset it,” Yost said. “Can the consistency get a little higher? Yeah. And it will through his development.”
Royals vs. Cubs
▪ WHEN/WHERE: 3 p.m. Tuesday in Mesa, Ariz.
▪ RADIO: KCSP (610 AM)