Sam Mellinger

April 24, 2014

So much to be learned about Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, which makes his starts all the more thrilling

The problem with the Royals’ Yordano Ventura, who makes his seventh major-league start Friday in Baltimore, is that nobody knows. This is the wonder in watching him pitch. It is also the danger. The thrill. The fear. Baseball is a world where everything is calculated, by computer or by intuition, and Ventura doesn’t fit any of the formulas. He is the size of a high school sophomore and throws a baseball, literally, harder than anyone on earth. What can you make of a guy like this?

The problem with Yordano Ventura is that nobody knows. This is the wonder in watching him pitch. It is also the danger. The thrill. The fear.

Baseball is a world where everything is calculated, by computer or by intuition, and Ventura doesn’t fit any of the formulas. He is the size of a high school sophomore and throws a baseball, literally, harder than anyone on earth. What can you make of a guy like this?

There is nothing in baseball quite so captivating as a young pitching star, especially one with a 102 mph fastball. They make anything feel possible, like the rules are about to be rewritten. Zack Greinke was like this with the Royals, for a time, and Bret Saberhagen before him. Appointment television.

People in baseball are trying to make sense of Ventura. They will be watching him closely Friday night in Baltimore, his seventh major-league start. Ventura’s last start was the worst of his new career, four runs and 10 baserunners against the Twins in Kansas City but, even so, left baseball lifers impressed — he managed the game, even without much command, getting through four innings and striking out six.

He’s thrown the six fastest pitches in baseball this year. He’s thrown more pitches over 100 mph than everyone else in the game combined. He is 22 years old, with a 2.65 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 17 innings. More than a quarter of the batters he faces strike out. Less than one fifth of them get a hit. How do you make sense of a guy like this?

You hear Pedro Martinez’s name a lot, and that’s probably as good a place to start as any. They are about the same size, right-handed pitchers from the Dominican Republic with explosive fastballs. But their arm slots are different. Ventura throws from a higher angle, Martinez with more of a sling action. Martinez made the ball dance like a puppet with his freakishly long fingers. Ventura is looser, his genius in an overpowering fastball and offspeed stuff that just keeps getting better.

“He’s not Pedro,” one American League executive said. “He’s not anyone. Find me all the guys who throw 103 with that kind of curveball and that kind of changeup. There’s probably five guys in baseball history like that. Maybe.”

It’s worth mentioning that this was the back end of a short soliloquy that actually started with the executive trying to calm the hype around Ventura. Somehow, it ended with him putting Ventura in the company of five guys in baseball history. Maybe.

So, yeah. The problem with Yordano Ventura is that nobody knows.

“I’ve never come across anybody that has this type of stuff, really, at a young age,” Royals manager Ned Yost says.

“Nobody,” catcher Sal Perez says.

This is the wonder. The danger. The thrill. The fear.

Yordano Ventura was 17 years old with a fastball in the mid-80s when the Royals signed him. You can find 17-year-olds with fastballs in the mid-80s in the Sunflower League, so to say that anyone saw


coming would be a blatant lie.

The Royals did see


though, so they gave him a $28,000 bonus — less than one month’s pay of the big-league minimum — and hoped for the best. The Royals could watch the way the ball shot out of Ventura’s right hand and dream.

Maybe it helped that he did not come into professional baseball as a phenom. Less clutter. Fewer distractions. They brought him along much the way they do all their pitchers. Basic parameters are set, with individual tweaks and challenges based on individual strengths and weaknesses.

This meant that for Ventura to move from one level to the next, he needed to show specific progress. Command the fastball. Repeat your motion. Control the run game. Keep your velocity up without full effort. This last one was particularly important for Ventura to remain a starting pitcher, and not another hard-throwing, max-effort late-inning guy.

Ventura met every challenge, even without overwhelming statistics. He isn’t a diva and doesn’t carry a stubborn streak that often accompanies rare talent. Ventura is earnest, a man with a fringe prospect’s desire to get better even with an established ace’s ability. This is part of why Scott Sharp, the Royals’ player development director, says Ventura made up as much ground in the 18 to 24 months before debuting last year as anyone he could think of.

Baseball people often say you need talent to have a chance at the big leagues, heart to make it and a brain to stay. Ventura’s talent is obvious, and scouts and coaches rave about his heart. The last step is his mind, and that includes everything from remembering what pitches worked against which batters and, for instance, knowing that he’s far too good to be giving away extra bases with wild pickoff attempts.

Quickly, the Royals noticed something real. It’s hard to see unless you’re really looking for it, but Ventura’s shoulder is incredibly “mobile,” in scouting parlance. There’s a lot of movement there. Very loose. The socket moves fast and far, a natural gift that helps him throw harder than anyone in baseball.

The good so outweighs the bad with Ventura that even grumpy old baseball men have a hard time finding reasons for skepticism. Ventura’s talent and constant thirst to get better mean the Royals have largely treated him with kid gloves, concerned primarily with not getting in his way and trying not to increase his injury risk.

Any conversation about Ventura eventually turns to that injury risk. You know, it’s easy to look at a relatively little guy throwing so hard and assume that a surgery will soon be scheduled.

But that’s not necessarily true.

Glenn Fleisig is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on what makes baseball pitchers break down. He is the chair of research at the American Sports Medicine Institute, which was founded by the famous orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, and among other things has worked with eight Cy Young winners and thousands of professional pitchers in search of a better understanding on arm injuries.

Neither Fleisig or the Royals would say whether Ventura has gone to ASMI, but the Royals are among the major-league teams to send pitchers for study there. Fleisig and his staff use slow-motion cameras and body sensors to examine the specific kinetics of each pitcher.

The fact that Ventura stands just 6 feet tall (a generous listing on the Royals’ official roster) does not make him a greater injury risk than a bigger pitcher.

“Take a 6-foot-6, 260-pound guy versus a 6-foot, 200-pound guy,” Fleisig says. “The tall guy has more body weight, a longer arm. But I don’t know if the guy who’s 20 percent heavier has 20 percent stronger tendons and ligaments. Their muscles are bigger, their bones tend to be bigger. But I haven’t seen, scientifically, if the ligaments are bigger. That’s the assumption, but I’m not sure.

“I don’t think your height and weight are a key factor for your injury risk.”

Fleisig’s research indicates the most important factor is the quality of a pitcher’s mechanics, followed by physical preparation, use, rest and nutrition. If all other things are equal, the harder a pitcher throws, the higher the injury risk. But that’s true regardless of size and does not account for whether a pitcher is born with stronger ligaments to sustain the greater force. Hard throwers have gone entire careers without major problems, and soft-tossers have been in and out of rehab.

This is an endless wave of unknowns, in other words. Baseball teams play the percentages, because that’s all they can do. Science provides no answers, only recommendations, educated guesses, and to that end the Royals are making the customary precautions.

Ventura rarely threw more than 100 pitches in a start during his five minor-league seasons and has done so only once in six big-league starts. The team is keeping a particularly close eye on how his mechanics hold up into the later innings, and from start to start. They are comforted that Ventura’s sound mechanics are largely natural, as is the unusual speed with which he throws.

They can’t tell you that Ventura won’t break down, only that they’ve taken every step they know of to keep their precious star’s risk no higher than the industry standard.

This is the wonder and the danger.

There is enough video of Yordano Ventura on big-league mounds to know that we may be watching the start of something special.

He is striking out more than a batter an inning, with command that is generally improving. Scouts and advanced metrics agree that a 2.65 ERA over his first three starts is much more about skill than luck.

But that bad start on Sunday against the Twins is a reminder that pitching prospects will break your heart more often than not. For every Justin Verlander, there is a Francisco Liriano. For every Clayton Kershaw, a Fausto Carmona. Recently, when talking about Ventura and high-profile prospects, the first comp from Yost was Steve Avery, who won 18 games with a 3.38 ERA at age 21. Three years later, Avery was at best average. By age 29, he was effectively done as a big-leaguer.

Yost didn’t have Avery’s fall in mind, but the mention is instructive nonetheless. Avery’s path does not have to be Ventura’s, just as Verlander’s path is not a roadmap. Some pitchers wear out, fatigue more than a breaking tendon. Some can’t adjust once their pitch tendencies are scouted. Others can’t come back from a failure.

The complication with Ventura is that he is just so unavoidably critical, in both the small and big picture. Jason Vargas will help soften the blow, but it’s hard to imagine the Royals making up for the loss of Ervin Santana, a no-longer-invincible bullpen and light offense without Ventura having a strong season.

And we are now in the eighth full year of Dayton Moore’s pitching-is-the-currency-of-baseball philosophy without actually producing a productive starting pitcher. If Ventura breaks through — and, who knows, Kyle Zimmer and Danny Duffy behind him — the Royals will appear on much stronger footing in a post-James Shields future. So much is riding on that shoulder and elbow and fastball and guts of Ventura.

The wonder. The danger. The thrill. The fear.

Related content



Sports Videos