Following a compelling rookie year highlighted by his sparkling performance despite personal anguish in Game 6 of the World Series, Yordano Ventura was awarded a five-year, $23 million contract and declared the Royals’ opening day starter.
Ventura’s precocious skills, including being the hardest-throwing starter in baseball, had long been evident.
Now his poise and mental toughness had seemingly been irrevocably established after the dominating performance against San Francisco in that potential elimination game days after his friend Oscar Taveras had been killed in a car accident.
“ ‘I’m going to show you who the real ace of this staff is,’ ” Ventura had told pitching coach Dave Eiland on the flight from San Francisco back to Kansas City after the Royals had fallen behind 3-2 in the series.
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All signs suggested a seamless, ascendant trajectory for Ventura, who will start Game 1 of the American League Division Series against Houston on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium.
But the auspicious omens didn’t account for what still bubbled within Ventura, just 23 years old at the start of the season.
“This is a kid who’s very emotional, a kid that’s very energetic,” said Pedro Martinez, the Hall of Fame pitcher and long-time Ventura idol who’s now doing analysis for TBS. “Sometimes he’ll flare on you …”
“He wants to be like a Pedro, and he wants to be aggressive. But he has to use this,” Martinez continued, pointing to his head, “to actually do those things.”
So maybe this is the easiest way to begin to understand the radical mood swings of Ventura this season, and what he’s worked through to soar back to where he is today — the winner of nine of his last 10 decisions who gave up one run over 14 innings in his last two starts.
“When he struggled, so to speak, for whatever the reason was, I said that once he gets through that he’s going to be better for it,” Eiland said. “Nobody really wanted to hear that back then.”
Not after what befell Ventura early in the season, when his first four starts lasted just 22 total innings and were marred by a disturbing series of self-inflicted departures (twice by cramping, twice by ejections).
The budding star who had been so composed, or at least harnessed his anxieties, in the most stressful of circumstances suddenly appeared unhinged by the routine.
Suddenly, he was somewhere between a brat and a drama queen — and surely part of what outfielder Alex Rios was referring to when he said “we need to start playing baseball like civilized people” after a brouhaha in Chicago.
Even within the clubhouse, Ventura was a puzzle. Teammate Edinson Volquez, like Martinez a Dominican countryman of Ventura, recalls Ventura frequently acting out.
“Why do you have to be angry? Why do you have to be mad? Every day, you are complaining. Why?” he remembers telling him.
There was no real answer, Volquez said, but he believes that moodiness is behind Ventura, who has learned to laugh at himself in ways he never could before.
As he reflected Wednesday on his early season volatility, Ventura acknowledged through translator Pedro Grifol that he is “not an exception to adversity.”
“He’s human; he’s a baseball player,” Grifol said. “He went through a difficult time. At times, he wasn’t able to handle it the way he wanted.”
All of which made for a dilemma in itself.
Ventura was having trouble distinguishing between flamboyant bravado and steely competitiveness.
As he backed off the inner part of the plate to avoid being a provocateur, he also was backing away from an important element of his arsenal.
Now he was being hit and losing confidence, maybe for the first time ever in baseball.
“He was reflecting one night, ‘Why am I not confident?’ ” Grifol said on his behalf. “ “I have the ability to pitch at this level. I’ve done it before.’
“And he decided just to flip the switch as far as the confidence was concerned.”
Asked which night, Grifol smiled, turned to Ventura and said, “Que noche?”
“ ‘Many nights,’ ” Ventura responded through the translator. Grifol continued: “But the one thing is that he realized he was the only person who could help himself with the confidence. No one can create confidence for him.”
Everyone would like a tidy, concrete answer, of course, to just what turned it around for Ventura.
Plenty of narratives have been furnished.
Maybe it was the shock therapy of being sent down to Class AAA Omaha — despite the fact he never left after Jason Vargas suffered a season-ending injury mere hours later.
“A lot of times, it’s good for players to take a step back so that they can take three or four steps forward,” manager Ned Yost said upon announcing the demotion.
But now Yost scoffs at the idea this was “a light-switch moment for him.”
More popular is the notion that veteran Johnny Cueto has shown Ventura the way since he was acquired July 26.
And, sure, there is an element of truth to that.
But on that very day, well before Cueto joined the team, Ventura gave up one run in seven innings against Houston to start a season-ending streak in which he has a 3.10 ERA and has limited to opponents to a .229 average.
He looked like the “old Ventura,” as Yost put it then, “a good sign for us” and … “a bad sign for everybody else.”
Yost will tell you now that he believes Cueto, another Dominican countryman, has helped Ventura learn to find that equilibrium between being passionate but professional.
Eiland sees something else at play.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘Well, Johnny kind of made Yordano relax,’ ” he said. “I feel very strongly about that (Ventura) took it personally (when Cueto was acquired).
“ ‘Oh, really, we needed to get a No. 1? I’ll show you who the No. 1 is.’ That’s the way he approached it. Not that he has anything against Johnny. They’re close, and they encourage and support one another.
“But Yordano was kind of, like, ‘Really?’ … I think it’s just made Yordano elevate his game even more so on top of the other things he’s learned.”
In fact, Eiland added, Ventura “soaks in” what he hears from Cueto and Volquez but ….
“He’s also, like, ‘I’m going to show you guys some things, too,’ ” Eiland said. “That’s how this guy’s made up. … ‘I’m learning from you, I got you, but watch me, too.’ ”
So as much as we might seek that moment of clarity when Ventura got his groove back, the truth is that it’s a mish-mash of many things.
“All this stuff plays into it,” Eiland said. “It was everything combined. This was a huge growing year for him.”
And now Eiland believes he’s ready again to show who the real ace of the staff is.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” Eiland said, “but this kid’s mind is in the right place … He just had to learn how to channel it the right way.”