Yordano Ventura is well-positioned for improvement with the World Series-champion Royals, and if you are into such things, the reasons to believe hit you before he throws a pitch.
The first is how he looks, and this is not about another ballplayer being in the best shape of his life but instead a precocious talent who has shown the ambition and commitment to put himself in the best position to improve.
“My body was feeling tired and I needed to change that,” he says. “All muscle. No grass.”
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Grass? you ask. Ventura has been working on his English, and entering his third full big-league season he is ready to take it public on a regular basis. He says he’ll try to do interviews with English-speaking reporters in his second language, but if the group is too big or the words aren’t coming to him, he’ll ask for a translation. Like here. Grass?
“Como se dice...” he says to Edinson Volquez, who smiles and turns to you.
“He says no fat,” Volquez says. “All muscle.”
Ventura’s willingness to use English has nothing to do with how he plays baseball this season. But it does hint at an overall comfort, security and assuredness in self that Ventura needs to close the gap between his unpredictable and individually disappointing 2015 and the enormous talent he showed in flashes during 2014 — especially in Game 6 of that year’s World Series against the Giants.
For whatever it’s worth, Ventura made his third start of the spring on Monday, and was terrific — six strikeouts, four baserunners and one run in four innings. His fastball touched 97 mph, but his best stuff was offspeed: four strikeouts on changeups, two on curveballs. He commanded all of his pitches, both in the stretch and out of the windup. It is the middle of March, and this start will be quickly forgotten, but it’s enough that people noticed.
“Real sharp,” manager Ned Yost said. “Yeah, I mean, like, midseason sharp. Had everything going. Really good command of his fastball, life on it, good breaking ball, throwing it for strikes, good changeups. Had a good day.”
For the Royals to be their best selves when the games count, they need Ventura’s best. And through conversations, observations and probably some intuition, I believe we’re about to see that. The Royals had to trade for an ace last year, and they got mixed results with Johnny Cueto.
But Ventura, who turns 25 in June and can no longer be considered a kid, is ready to be the best starting pitcher on the defending World Series champions.
He is the most gifted pitcher in the Royals’ employ, and the problem has never been confidence. Ventura’s issues have come with arrogance and insecurity, vices many of us deal with, but vice that can be especially problematic for young and talented professional athletes.
He has to pitch with confidence, but that also has to come with the humility to work and focus and keep his body strong between starts. That’s as much away from the field — being healthy, getting rest — as what he does at the ballpark.
Also, his nature is to never back down, but he has to find the space between aggression and unnecessary provocation. Don’t puff the chest out after going inside, and don’t curse at an opponent for hitting a comebacker or scoring a run.
This is where he failed last year. He was immature and either incited or allowed drama that ripped away his gifts. Maybe some of that was a belief he had to play a role after signing a $24 million contract and taking the opening day start. But it’s also true he was terrific in that spotlight start — one run and four hits allowed in six innings.
What’s remembered from that day, however, is how he left the game early with a thumb cramp, which set a bad pattern — he struck out eight in seven innings in his fourth start against the White Sox, and would’ve pitched deeper if not for the 50-man brawl he started by screaming an unprintable suggestion to Adam Eaton on the field.
A nasty spiral followed. Teammate after coach after teammate tried talking with him, some with carrots, some with sticks, and the result was Ventura ended up timid. This was his insecurity. He didn’t want his teammates angry with him, didn’t want to be suspended again, didn’t want to be known as a punk.
That meant he didn’t throw as hard, or as aggressively. Instead of worrying about a 98 mph fastball on the hands, opposing batters could sit on a 92 mph fastball on the outside part of the plate.
“So now he’s getting hit around a bit and then, I don’t care who you are, your confidence starts to go,” says Dave Eiland, the Royals’ pitching coach. “I tell him all the time: ‘You can be as good as you want to be, but you have to get back to being you.’”
For what might’ve been the first time for him, Ventura dealt with failure. This is always the most important part of a young player’s career, because except for Mike Trout, they all deal with failure. Ventura let it overwhelm in the beginning, but then he took something like a mental reset when the Royals told him he would be going back to the minor leagues last summer.
It didn’t happen — Jason Vargas’ elbow blew out the next night, so Ventura never made it to Omaha — but something about that experience resonated with him. The accepted narrative last year was that Ventura felt more comfortable after the trade for Cueto, or was perhaps motivated by his club feeling the need to add another pitcher.
But the more you look at the timing of everything, and the more you talk to people around the organization, the more it becomes apparent that the real change occurred when Ventura heard that he was no longer a member of the big-league club.
“You could see it,” catcher Sal Perez says. “It’s little things. To think about. ‘What’d I do wrong?’ It’s not just on the field, it’s off the field, too. ‘What did I do wrong? I need to sleep good; I can’t be tired during the day.’”
In Ventura’s first start after the “demotion,” he struck out five, walked none and gave up one run in seven innings against the Astros. From that day to the end of the regular season, Ventura went 9-1 with a 3.10 ERA, striking out 91 in 87 innings and allowing a .229 average, .307 on-base and .343 slugging percentage — essentially, Tyler Flowers’ numbers.
There are baseball reasons for this. Ventura became less predictable with both pitch selection and location. He relied more on his curveball — which has always been his most important pitch. And it all came, essentially, after being told the Royals would be better off with him in the minor leagues.
“It was time to start new,” Ventura says. “To work hard for the team, and for me. It was a new start. Everybody has one moment, one day. This is my moment.”
Which brings us to now. Nothing matters until the regular season, of course, and even then a good start by Ventura will be met with fair hesitancy from some wanting to see the consistency he showed in 2014. His stature and velocity mean he carries more injury risk than most.
But assuming this is all real — the commitment, the humility to work and the confidence to pitch aggressively again — the Royals may have that top-shelf pitcher they thought they were trading for last year.
For a team that needs more out of its rotation, a big season by Ventura is perhaps the greatest single key in the Royals avoiding the falls of so many past defending champions.
“Everything in my mind is this game,” Ventura says. “This is my life. I love to compete. This is everything to me. My mind, my body, my everything. I want to be better. I’m working to be different.”